|Central American University - UCA
Number 286 | Mayo 2005
Miguel Facussé: Fencing off Paradise
One case, just one, that demonstrates how the most successful businesspeople of Honduras and the rest of Central America operate, and how the poor, their traditional victims, are organizing and learning to speak out.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
A news story tucked away in the corner of page 42 of a national newspaper on April 15 told of the arrest of ten community leaders from the southern Honduran island of Zacate Grande in the Gulf of Fonseca, where Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua converge. The news item went on to tell how hundreds of the islands’ inhabitants had blocked the highway linking the island to the mainland demanding the release of those detained. The National Police arrested the community leaders at four in the morning after a warrant was issued at the request of the Secretariat for Natural Resources and the Environment. They were accused of damages to the environment, private property and the Honduran state.
Nothing further was printed about the case. When discovered that none other than Honduran mogul Miguel Facussé Barjum was involved in the arrests, we decided to go to the island and investigate further. We soon found out that the leaders had been freed on bail that same afternoon and Facussé himself had showed up to negotiate directly with them, “To make sure the situation won’t have any national repercussions,” as he told them.
A successful, Miguel Facussé Barjum is recognized as one of the most successful, audacious businesspeople in Honduras and Central America as a whole. Year after year, the government and big private Honduran business organize special events to award him prizes and recognition as a great man, a great entrepreneur and a leader of private initiative.
In the stories told about Miguel Facussé, the boundary between reality and legend becomes blurred. Some say he was the first Central American businessperson to invest in Castro’s Cuba, challenging the Helms-Burton law, while others go as far as attributing his fortune and success to a Faustian pact with the devil himself.
Whatever the truth, Facussé is always in the news, with the media constantly commenting on his formidable business successes. Not even the national media organizations have the capacity to sustain a criticism of Facussé for over a day, and none of the newspaper opinion pages ever question his activities.
Democracy is a The stories and legends have it that Facussé has influenced the election of all the country’s Presidents since the start of Honduras’ formal democracy a quarter of a century ago. He has no political affiliation or party, which his more sycophantic supporters explain by insisting that he only supports democracy.
In fact, Facussé will work with any political tendency to further his business deals with its leaders. It’s surely more than just a rumor that he has a private airplane at the permanent disposition of the country’s top authorities, from Presidents and former Presidents to high-flying ambassadors and even some top-ranking ecclesiastical authorities on their pastoral journeys.
With money and even bulletsIn Tocoa, in the northeastern department of Colón, it is said that Facussé offered 3 million lempiras to Carlos Escaleras, who ran as the mayoral candidate for the leftist Democratic Unification party (UD). Escaleras didn’t accept the offer and continued to openly criticize Facussé’s decision to set up a plant there to extract African palm oil without any apparent concern for the potential damage from vapors and chemicals to the hundreds of families living in numerous neighboring communities.
A few months after the offer and Escaleras’ continued environmentally based criticism, he was gunned down by hired assassins. The crime has been lost in the thick fog of impunity hanging over Honduran justice, although human rights organizations did manage to get the case passed on to the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Shelved justiceThe archives of the justice system are full of cases brought against Miguel Facussé that never got anywhere. They’ve either been gathering dust for years on a forgotten shelf or were dealt with summarily by some judge with a slithery smile uttering the words “case dismissed.”
The archives of Honduran justice are also full of lawsuits brought by Miguel Facussé against employees or ex-employees, agricultural smallholders or insignificant public officials. In contrast, almost all of these cases have ended in crushing sentences against those being sued.
The rich and famous Miguel Facussé has a foothold in all the different regions of Honduras. It’s no secret that a very important part of the African palm cooperatives in the Aguán Valley is now in his hands. The same is rumored of his presence in the beaches between Trujillo and Sangrelaya, on Honduras’ northeastern Caribbean coast. Others say he has a powerful presence in other geographically important valleys, such as the Leán, Sula and Comayagua valleys.
of the Coyolito club
Regarding the reported events of April 15, we need to take a closer look at Facussé’s advances in southern Honduras. More specifically, we should examine the situation developing on Zacate Grande, from where one can make out the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran coastlines. That’s the location of Coyolito, where about 50 of Honduras’ wealthiest and most famous families—Facussé, Callejas, Nasser, Kafatti, Sikaffi, Asfura, Atala and Gutiérrez families, to name a few—take a break from their business deals or toast their successes as part of what has come to be known as the Coyolito Club, of which Facussé is the undisputable leader. What better place to meet than on the island of Zacate Grande, that heaven on earth.
From deserted to inhabited…Some of the current inhabitants of Zacate Grande have been living there for about 80 years, although most arrived in 1954. When the old-timers came, the island was as deserted “as when God created the world,” as one inhabitant put it. In 1969, a highway was built linking the island to the mainland, and from then on that paradise started to attract the attention of Honduras’ richest families. The inhabitants can claim natural possession of the land, but they have no legal documentation. Facussé argues that the island is private property and that he bought it from Carmen Malespín, who inherited it from a Nicaraguan family, which in turn supposedly inherited it from Terencio Sierra, the first documented owner, who acquired the island while President of Honduras in the 19th century. In reality, however, the island was uninhabited and not until the first few decades of the 20th century did the first families arrive from the southern departments of Choluteca and de Valle.
to prime real estate
By 1999, pressure from the Coyolito Club had increased so much that it became a real threat to the lives of the 800 families living in the island’s 10 communities, so they formed the Development and Solidarity Council (CODESOL) to present a united front against the pressure. Their aim was to wage a joint struggle to turn their natural possession into a legal right and protect themselves from the monster stirring in Coyolito. They got support from Caritas’ legal department in the diocese of Choluteca and from other solidarity groups from Choluteca and Tegucigalpa.
“Go, go! Get out of here!”:On December 18, 2003, Miguel Facussé managed to strip the Cárcamo family of their land so he could give Gaviota beach as a wedding present to his daughter, who married the son of Coyolito Club member Freddy Nasser, another of the country’s magnates. If the whole of Zacate Grande is an island paradise, Gaviota beach is its most celestial expression. The Cárcamo family’s eviction kicked off the efforts of the Facussé family and other Club members to take over the whole island.
The first eviction
One witness described the Cárcamo family’s eviction: “That peaceful, almost heavenly atmosphere was broken by the motor of a vehicle that passed about 50 meters from the house. Around ten police officers came. And while the people in the house were checking out the rather unusual events, another 20 police officers suddenly came up from behind the house. Joining up with the first ten, they immediately surrounded the house, pointing their big rifles threateningly at Germán and Narda Cárcamo’s children and shouting: ‘Get out of here! This isn’t yours! Go! Go! You’re on this land illegally.’”
At that point the Cárcamo family recalled how the opulent Nasser-Facussé family had bought a neighboring property about three years earlier and had also tried to get its hands on their plot of land. Germán Cárcamo had told how they had offered him 80,000 lempiras (US$4,470) and then threatened to have him evicted when he rejected the offer, telling him a complicated story to make him believe that his land actually belonged to them.
The Nasser-Facussé’s legal representative supposedly told him, “Look, you’ve got a check here for 80,000 lempiras. You might as well take the dough, because you’re out of here anyway, with it or without it.”
A quick and cruel evictionWhile that little bit of earth was the Cárcamo family’s only possession, Miguel Facussé and Freddy Nasser wanted it just so they could relax a little over the weekend. The judge finally decided that the land belonged to Facussé and the Cárcamo family of 11 had to leave or be legally evicted.
The reading of the judge’s sentence had not even been finished on the day of the eviction when one of the policemen put out the fire heating the pot containing the family’s lunch, then overturned the pot, spilling its contents all over the ground. That was only the opening salvo in an eviction that proceeded with indescribable and gratuitous cruelty. They threw around the family’s plates and other belongings, breaking everything. “It sounded like an earthquake,” recalled one inhabitant. The Cárcamo family had stored 32 sacks of maize they had harvested three months earlier. In an instant, the maize was scattered all over the property, which in only seconds more passed into the possession of Miguel Facussé and Freddy Nasser.
“With God and my work...”On March 23, 2004, over a year after the eviction, Facussé sent a letter to the families of Puerto Grande, one of the island’s ten communities. His letter included the following passages:
“God and the effort of my work have allowed me to own property, which entails a real and profound responsibility for me regarding environmental preservation and the welfare of neighboring communities. That is why I have done so much to conserve and protect natural resources, particularly in this area, such as constant and ongoing planting that adds up to two million wood-bearing and fruit trees to date, and conservation and protection of the fauna, which allows us to see the free flight of birds of such great beauty as macaws, parakeets, parrots, etc… Thanks to this vegetation we can see iguanas and other animals species known to be endangered running around, and it also guarantees water sources and a healthy climate…”
“A highway was built from Las Pilas to El Novillo, and its continual upkeep negotiated; electricity has been brought
to certain communities, there have been drinking water projects, wells have been sunk and over 600 property titles have been provided, which has enabled you to start initiatives for your personal benefit.”
“Primary and high schools are supported by material donations and a considerable number of women have been trained in dressmaking courses, which allows them to generate ongoing income. The fact that we cooperated in getting a police post installed in Puerto Grande has helped increase law and order, which has stopped the infamous youth gangs from setting up in the neighborhood, and I have also represented a source of employment and of benefits for my employees….“
“I would now personally like to invite you to participate in a new and interesting plan in which I have considered hiring an urban planner so we can jointly design a pilot project that includes the lands you asked for to benefit your whole community, so each family can have its plot of land with enough space for a comfortable house and a place for a garden and to grow fruit, planning the construction of a community center, sports complexes, a park, churches, schools, and giving you a tourist project at Julián beach, one of the most beautiful on the island…”
“For the above reasons I would very cordially like to invite you to name community representatives, establishing a day and a place in the near future for your participation in a meeting in which with your presence and mine we can make this a reality...”
“I would like to take this opportunity to publicly state that I have had no participation in the events concerning the Cárcamo family, and that my on initiative a conciliatory arrangement is currently being negotiating that will define and favor their current situation.
Miguel Facussé Barjum.”
“What you didn’t say in your letter...”On May 7, the people of Zacate Grande forcefully answered this letter, which Miguel Facussé had taken it upon himself to show to various media. Their letter contained the following passages:
“1. What you don’t say is that most of the trees you refer to sprouted up on their own and that you have devastated a large part of the woodland we had on our island before you came. Have you forgotten, for example, the La Joya mangrove swamp that you fenced off and cut down?
“2. What you don’t say in your letter is that the animals you claim to protect are a couple of balding specimens you keep in cages and others that the people who guard the hill for your son Miguel Mauricio Facussé enjoy killing from helicopters with shotguns or with the help of your fierce dogs and your bodyguards.
“3. Your letter also fails to mention that the police post you claim to have installed in Puerto Grande under the pretext of controlling youth gangs in our communities was really put there with the intention of protecting the lands that you yourself have grabbed from us.
“4. What you don’t say in your letter is that you have taken over the whole of Tigritos Island and that without the respective environmental impact study or license, you have filled in a large part of the sea to join it to the mainland and create another vacation house.
“5. Another thing you didn’t say in your letter is that the we fishermen can no longer protect ourselves from the strong winds by sheltering on Tigritos Island because armed people stop us from entering there.
“6. Nor does your letter mention that you are fencing in the sea with a concrete walkway that totally stops us entering from that side of the sea.
“7. With respect to the community projects you claim to have given us, both representatives from state institutions and other individuals say that they were responsible for them. But if paid for them, then where did that other money go?
“8. What you don’t say in your letter is that we work openly in community projects and have to confess that we don’t feel at all comfortable hearing you proclaim that you built our highways when our backs still reverberate from the jolt of the sledgehammers and pickaxes, when we remember the thousands of days we inhabitants of Zacate Grande worked to build them, such as the one running from Las Pilas to Puerto Grande.
“9. If you still really feel a desire to link what you say to reality, you should mention that you provided around 100 property deeds, not 600, and that they contain mistakes invalidating them, and that little document you gave us shows us all having your good self as the adjoining owner, even if someone else is actually our neighbor. It should also be pointed out that the same document establishes that we can only sell to you.”
Miguel, “Miguel, after having reconstructed the history of your behavior towards us, we the people of Zacate Grande wonder what you really want to achieve with the humiliating offer you’re making, as we’ve realized that in addition to not telling the truth, you’re very good at giving one thing then taking away something else under the table that is of greater value than what you gave. You do the same as us fishermen when we catch fish by concealing the hook with a shrimp tail or a bit of crab.
“You’ve been deceiving us In that way for a long time with candies and other such things, like when the Spanish came and gave little bits of mirror to our ancestors but took away their gold.
“We admire your ill-intentioned guile in buying off the municipal authorities in advance, supporting their candidacies for mayor, so that when we voted for them we were actually voting for you and against ourselves and our families.”
You want us to “We think you want to achieve the following with your supposed offers:
doff our hats to you
”1. You want us to stop planting crops so we’ll lose the ownership right over the land in question and thus leave it for you, someone who has made and wants to continue making millions out of it.
“2. You want to use the deeds you have given us to keep us happy, making us think that we have legalized our lands, while you become the only legitimate owner.
“3. You want to use the many projects you say that you’ve given us to get us to doff our hats to you and submit to your every whim.
“4. Under the pretext of caring for the environment, you’re taking everything and leaving us with nothing.”
If you put yourself in our shoes...”If one day, even in your dreams, you put yourself in our shoes and saw, heard and felt all the suffering you’ve produced since it occurred to you to come to our island, you’d understand us better.
“If one day you put yourself in our shoes you’d feel a tingling in your feet, and a powerful roar in your ears when on your orders your guards shot at us as we approached the La Llorona and La Virgen beaches to fish for food for our families. And if we left our nets set up and went off for a while so as not to provoke the wrath of your guards, you’d see how your guards sank those nets by shooting the buoys from which they are suspended.”
“If you were in our shoes, you’d realize that when your guards sink those nets they’re also sinking the money we spent to pay for them, as well as our jobs and above all the lunch and supper of our children who are waiting at the door of our houses.”
Because of you we lost our nets, “If you could see what we see, you’d see how we dodge the bullets to fish for food at Punta Remolino, but the hooks and nets get stuck in the barbed wire you ordered to be put up so we can’t fish there either. You’d also see how the sadness wells up in us when we remember that we also can’t go and get crabs, , , clams and fresh water crabs in the marshy ground of La Joya because, as you will remember, you eliminated and fenced off what was there. The saddest thing of all is knowing that while we lost our nets, our sons and daughters have not lost their hunger.
but not our hunger
“If you put yourself in our shoes, you would feel how we sigh when we see those bits of land on which we cultivated our basic grains with dignity, got firewood and hunted wild animals to survive and got the wooden beams for our houses, because when you came to our island you took them away from us in exchange for a few lempiras, saying that the land was yours and if we didn’t accept the money we were going to lose it anyway. Now our lands are fenced off with wire fencing, heavy arms and signs that say, ‘Private forestry reserve,’ ‘Restricted access,’ ‘24-hour forestry guard’.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of Zacate Grande’s mothers, you’d sense how it feels to look at our children, malnourished and pallid due to a lack of food, as many of us no longer have any land on which to produce or sea in which to fish or hills on which to hunt, as you now tell us that all that is yours.
“If you put yourself in the shoes of us young people, you would be able to feel the sadness of not having even the most minimum means with which to live in the future with something approaching dignity, because you have already taken almost all of the necessary means of production away from us and the children we dream of having.”
Pointing the accusing finger “If for just one day you dreamed about those who have left our island, you would see various peasants and fishermen who fled the misery you caused them and now live abandoned in different Honduran cities. You would see others turn pale as they hide while US migration agents pass by, because at that very moment they remember how you took almost everything away from them when they were here and they won’t have anywhere to work or live if they’re deported.
“Surely in that dream, you would also see many of our brothers from Zacate who are now dead accusing you, pointing their fingers at you for having hounded them to death, because when you took away their means of subsistence they couldn’t feed themselves better and couldn’t buy medicine and they silently withered away when they felt they had lost everything, including their dignity.
At that moment, you would realize that several of our brothers died from the pain of having been dispossessed.
“Your charity is a trick“If in the same dream you came across the prophet Jeremiah, he would probably look you in the eye and say with a mixture of tenderness and reprobation: ‘Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. Like their cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it; they do not defend the rights of the poor.’ (Jeremiah 5, 26-28 )
and a slap in the face”
“We’re sorry that some inhabitants of our island who you have managed to deceive are helping you plan our slow death through traps to evict us. We ask them if they know anyone who has been made happy by plotting evil for others. We ask them if they have realized yet that by following your game they are imprinting the indelible marks of misery and humiliation on most of the people of Zacate Grande.
“We advise them with particular respect, to ask God, on one of those calm nights when silence imposes itself over noise, if He agrees that they should join up with Miguel Facussé to plan misfortune for Zacate Grande’s people. We forgive them and are hoping that one day they join us to think about how we can improve our existence in a dignified way.
“Finally, Miguel, we want to inform you that the only thing we want from you is that you respect our right to be allowed to live by our own means rather than giving us charity which is both a trick and a slap in the face for us.
Movement to Recover and Title the Land on Zacate Grande Island.”
An unexpected reactionIt was a year after this exchange of letters between Zacate Grande’s inhabitants and Miguel Facussé that the leaders of the island’s ten communities were arrested, accused of causing damages to the environment, private property and the Honduran state.
Facussé was determined to pursue the legal path until the community leaders were tried and sentenced. But he never imagined the immediate and spontaneous mobilization of the island’s inhabitants, neither suggested nor led by any outside actors, as discovered from the Choluteca diocese Social Pastoral, which offered legal advice to the Zacate Grande inhabitants. Nobody there had expected such a swift and strong reaction from the inhabitants and they assured us that it was only thanks to community’s show of force that the news had leaked into the national newspaper, forcing Facussé to negotiate with the communities.
At this stage in the conflict, negotiation would appear to be a tactical and delaying move on Facussé’s part, given that this great magnate of private enterprise and politics has generated so many ways to protect his own interests and is convinced of his right to own the island. He also has the unconditional support of the Coyolito Club.
Great protector To win control of the island, Facussé acquired documents making the real owners, who have been living on the island for 80 years, into usurpers. And like the crafty fox that he is, he has opted for the most popular route: the environment. Honduran society identifies Facussé as the great defender of the environment in the south of the country, particularly on the island of Zacate Grande. With this in mind, he managed to get the National Congress to declare Zacate Grande a “protected area,” particularly the 100,000 hectares he already controls.
of the environment…?
The 800 families living in the 10 Zacate Grande communities are in imminent danger of having their land taken away, because that’s what has been decided by Honduras’ 50 richest men, under the leadership of none other than Miguel Facussé Barjum. He has already decided that the island is too beautiful to be owned by poor people and has determined that it should be destined for five-star tourism. For this to happen, he has to own the whole island.
After legally maneuvering to get the captured rebel community leaders released under house arrest, Facussé launched a conciliation process that appears to be aimed at proposing the inhabitants’ relocation in another region. This would be backed up by the National Congress resolution naming the island a protected area, and who better than Facussé to continue acting as the great environmental protector?
If things get more complicated for him, Facussé could even reach an agreement establishing at least temporary peaceful coexistence, as long as the inhabitants contribute to the island’s environmental “protection” in benefit of his business deals. Whatever the final solution, Facussé can be sure to count on the backing of his friends in the Coyolito Club.
This small but significant caseMany other Hondurans in other regions of the country have either experienced or are currently experiencing dispossession processes similar to the one involving Zacate Grande’s inhabitants. The publicizing of this small but significant case will bolster the struggle of the Zacate Grande inhabitants and maybe even the struggles of others. It’s important to find ways to ensure that other victims of this magnate get organized. Another world and another Honduras will never be possible unless the poor “Lazaruses” organize their forces to defend their possessions, which are threatened by magnates who sup luxuriously in so many Coyolito Clubs.