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Landowners, peasants in fight for land

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Wealthy landowners on the fertile northern coast of Honduras have taken up a collection to finance the assassination of a U.S. priest who has supported the invasion of farmland by landless peasants and accused the country’s wealthiest man of murder, church activists say.

“The head of Fr. Peter Marchetti is now worth 500,000 lempiras (about $32,000 U.S. currency). The killer who manages to assassinate him will get that money,” Juan Antonio Mejia, a social worker with the diocese of Trujillo, told NCR.

Marchetti, a 55-year-old Jesuit from Omaha, Neb., was until May the pastor in Tocoa. Nestled in the fertile Aguan Valley in the north of Honduras, the parish has been the scene of violent confrontations between rich and poor people. With encouragement from the church, the poor people in the Aguan Valley took the Jubilee Year seriously, converting the zone into a laboratory for agrarian reform in a region where access to decent farmland remains but a dream for the poor majority.

The most dramatic moment came at midnight on May 14, 2000, when a group of 700 landless families overran government troops to invade a former military base that the U.S. government constructed in the 1980s to train regional armies. The peasants, many of whom lost their simple homes to Hurricane Mitch in 1998, claim the former base should be given to them by the government. While the government’s agrarian reform ministry agrees, a group of cattle ranchers that purchased the land in 1991 at a fraction of the land’s real value exercises extraordinary economic and political power in the zone. The ranchers met the peasant invaders with gunfire.

Yet by the time the sun came up the next day, the feast day of San Isidro, the patron saint of the peasant, the land was claimed by the peasants. Soon their huts of palm fronds began to resemble homes. They built a school atop cement foundations where U.S. advisers once taught counterinsurgency techniques. They banned alcohol, and organized teams to supervise health, food production, security and education.

Their presence provoked an angry response from the landowners. Tension between the two groups escalated until a gunfight broke out in July, during which Diogenes Osorto, one of the ranchers, died with an AK-47 in his hands. Osorto’s family and other ranchers blamed Marchetti, who has provided moral and material support to the peasants.

Marchetti suggests he’s a scapegoat. “We’ve opened up significant space for citizen participation. Without the church I don’t think this would have happened,” the priest told NCR in a June interview. “Have I spent a lot of time in this personally? No. Do I make the decisions? No. Am I a symbol in a very religious culture that it might be just and godly to distribute resources to the poor? Yes.”

The threats haven’t dissuaded Marchetti from taking his role seriously. Indeed, he’s stepped up the battle, accusing local landowners of profiting from transportation through the region of cocaine bound for the United States.

Marchetti points to one airstrip in particular. It’s located on a huge estate near the former military base, owned by Miguel Facusse, the wealthiest man in Honduras. Yet can Marchetti prove that Facusse, the uncle of Honduran President Carlos Flores, is a drug trafficker? “If the cocaine lands on your airstrip all the time, and you have control over your airstrip, then what’s going on?” Marchetti asked. “Drugs are good business. It may not be good for the national economy but it’s certainly good business for the individuals who transport it.”

Marchetti also claims that Facusse was behind the 1997 killing of Carlos Escaleras, a Catholic delegate of the word and a political activist who challenged Facusse’s plans to install an African palm oil processing plant on the disputed former military base. Facusse has denied the charges, yet church workers claim that the judge investigating Escaleras’ death has received sufficient evidence to indict Facusse and several allies, including two Congress deputies from the zone. Nevertheless, the country’s judicial authorities have prevented progress by repeatedly rotating responsibility for the investigation. To date, 10 prosecutors and four judges have been involved in the case. Every time they get ready to move on the evidence, the country’s Supreme Court transfers the case to new personnel. “Facusse plays musical chairs with the prosecutors and judges in order to avoid prosecution,” Marchetti claimed.

Far from Tocoa

Catholic activists finally convinced the country’s attorney general to create a special investigator for the case. But after repeated threats, Luis Canteano, the man given the job, was transferred to Ocotepeque, about as far away as one can get from Tocoa without leaving Honduras.

There’s no shortage of witnesses. According to Berta Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, the judge currently assigned the case, Marcos Clara, has four times refused to take a deposition from an unnamed witness who can prove that the money paid to Escaleras’ killers came from a chemical plant owned by Facusse.

Given the legal procrastination, Marchetti has taken it upon himself to demand justice for the killers of Escaleras. But Marchetti said the more he pushes to solve the killing, the more threats he receives. His Jesuit superiors, hoping to cool tensions down, ordered Marchetti to leave Tocoa against his will last November. He returned briefly. He has been out of the country in recent weeks.

Mejia said the church knows of “at least three killers who are looking for Fr. Marchetti.” He said that two of them were waiting for him in the village of Carbonales in late May when Marchetti arrived to celebrate Mass. Mejia said parishioners warned Marchetti, who immediately left the village.

Mejia said local ranchers have taken a collection to raise the bounty money. “The price on the father’s head is being paid by people who don’t want justice and development in the valley. Fr. Marchetti has worked hard so that justice could flower in this area so mistreated by the corrupt elite of the country,” Mejia said.

On May 29, officials of the Jesuit’s Central American Province moved Marchetti out of Tocoa for good, appointing him to head a regional team of social analysts based in El Progreso, 200 kilometers to the west. And in June, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared asked the Washington-based Inter American Human Rights Commission, a division of the Organization of American States, to order the Honduran government to protect Marchetti as well as a witness and a Honduran rights activist involved in the case. “We don’t believe that we should have to wait for people to die before anyone takes legal action,” Oliva said.

Marchetti has been lauded for his courage. Leo Valladares, the National Human Rights commissioner, an autonomous government official, last year awarded Marchetti his yearly human rights award. A close colleague of Marchetti, who acknowledged that the U.S. priest “can at times be a self-righteous pain in the ass to work with,” said such high visibility has helped save the priest’s life. “Killing Peter would draw disastrous attention to the corruption and inequalities that have long governed the Aguan Valley. I think the only reason Peter is still alive is that [President] Flores sent out an order not to touch him, simply because the president doesn’t want to face the bad press that [Marchetti’s] assassination would draw,” the colleague said.

The bishop of Trujillo, Virgilio López Irias, told NCR that Marchetti had his full confidence. “He’s been working well with the peasants as part of the church’s belief that the poor need access to land. I don’t know why people are so upset with Peter. Perhaps they’re misinterpreting his work. The church is not against any group, but we do believe that the poor have legitimate rights that must be respected within the framework of the law,” López said.

Marchetti said he wasn’t worried about his personal safety. “I depend on the people. When the new contract on me came out, I got word of it immediately,” the priest said. “People are afraid to talk, but there are a lot of eyes. And a lot of hearts that are with what we’re trying to do.”

Marchetti said one positive note to his permanent departure from Tocoa is that it “will prove that I’m not the instigator, that I’m not necessary for the changes to go forward.”

Marchetti isn’t the first U.S. priest to provoke controversy in Tocoa. The parish was served in the ‘70s by James Carney, a Jesuit who encouraged peasant organizations and was deported by the Honduran military in 1979. Popularly known as “Padre Guadalupe,” Carney spent a few years in revolutionary Nicaragua and then re-entered Honduras in 1983 as chaplain of a guerrilla column. Although the exact details of his fate remain unclear, Carney was captured and executed by U.S.-assisted Honduran troops.

According to Marchetti, who lived in Nicaragua in the 1980s and rankled Sandinista officials with his criticism of the shortcomings of their agrarian reform, the church can help encourage new attitudes that facilitate authentic agrarian change. “We’ve got to allow the most subversive side of a landless peasant to come out,” Marchetti said. “They’ve got to work toward autonomy. We’ve got to encourage their dignity, convince them they don’t need a boss.” Marchetti said that means encouraging the family farm model, in which labor is carried out by adults and children together.

If women had a vote

Marchetti said a second element of successful land reform that has often been lacking in the region is the equal participation of women. “That means their names are on the titles, and they have equal votes in all the decisions,” he said.

Vast tracts of land in the Aguan Valley were awarded to landless peasants under land reform carried out by the Honduran military in the 1960s. Yet along came wealthy landowners like Facusse who over the course of several years bought it from the poor for a song.

“If the peasant women had enjoyed a say in the matter, they wouldn’t have sold the land,” Marchetti argued. “For a traditional peasant man, the temptation is always there to sell the land because then you can buy your own gun, you can have another woman, and you can buy a car which will break down in six months because you don’t know how to drive it or how to take care of it. When the men in this area sold their land to Facusse, the women were against it, but their vote didn’t count back then. Today things have changed.”

Marchetti’s efforts for land reform and justice for the killers of Escaleras seem separate issues, yet the priest believes if each thread is pulled hard enough, then the whole structure of privilege and corruption that makes Honduras one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere may unravel.

“You don’t do much just cutting the weeds off above the ground, because the plant remains alive. The only way to eliminate corruption is to root it out completely,” Marchetti said. “And we’ve got to work at the same time to make it harder for corruption to grow anew. The fertile soil for corruption is a population that is not organized, that’s poor and desperate. When the poor get organized, and have hope, then the rich have a hard time getting away with all sorts of crimes, including murder.”

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance journalist living in Honduras.

Related Web site

Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2001