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Army Moving In On Aguán Campesinos

The pro-government Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo reported on April 11 that Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa had ordered a "strong militarization" of the lower Aguán River Valley in northern Honduras, the site of a land conflict between influential landowners and some 3,000 campesino families. "Today, the lower Aguán has been totally militarized, and we've detected at least 30 military vehicles with troops carrying high-caliber weapons," said Yony Rivas, a member of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), which has fought since 2001 for some 20,000 hectares of land it claims were bought illegally by three wealthy business owners, Miguel Facussé Barjum, Reinaldo Canales and René Morales.

Andrés Pavón, director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), said the troop movements are unusual, since "the police, not the military, resolve conflicts of a civilian character."

The militarization followed a week of growing tension in the Aguán region. On April 2 MUCA charged that the military, police and paramilitaries were planning to remove thousands of campesinos "in a violent and bloody manner" from lands they had occupied in the Aguán region. The area is used for cultivating African oil palm trees, a source of cooking oil; a Facussé family business, Grupo Dinant, is exploring ways to use palm oil in biofuel production as well.

On April 5 the government rejected a plan from MUCA that would restore 28 cooperatives formed under the country's agrarian reform law, giving each of the 3,000 campesino families about five hectares of land. The government has proposed buying 4,500 hectares from the landowners and distributing the land to the campesinos, which would give about 1.5 hectares for each family.

On April 7, two men on a motorcycle killed a MUCA leader, José Manuel Álvarez Guerra, with five shots as he arrived at his home in the Manga Seca neighborhood in Tocoa, capital of Colón department. This was the fourth murder of a MUCA member in less than a month.

On April 9 the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) charged that US soldiers were carrying out patrols in two Black Hawk helicopters on both sides of the Aguán River. The helicopters were taking off from the US miliary's Soto Cano Air Base (the former Palmerola base) in the central department of Comayagua, the FNRP said. From inside the Black Hawks "US military personnel take photographs and carry out observation, search and intelligence-gathering work over the terrain."

On Apr. 12 the Quixote Center, a Washington, DC-based human rights group, called for people to contact Ambassador Craig Kelly at the US State Department (202-647-6754), the State Department Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs (202-647-0834, WHAAsstSecty@state.gov ) and the White House (http://www.whitehouse.gov/CONTACT/ or 202-456-1111) to "express alarm" over the situation in the Aguán region and possible US air support for Honduran military repression. (Quixote Center e-mail alert, April 12)