Strange Fruit

Guatemalan peasants murdered on Del Monte banana plantation

Today, nearly all of the campesinos living at Lankin are men. Most do have families, but their wives and children have left for safer places. There are some, however, who have brought their wives and kids to the occupied land. About 50 children attend school here. Since the old building was looted, the teacher gives classes in a barren hut with benches but no walls, let alone lights or a chalkboard.

Desperation drove the workers to this place. Hope that they'll be allowed to stay, and continue providing food for their families, keeps them here. But their fear remains palpable, rushing to the surface each time a vehicle approaches on the dirt road through the property. Right next to their crude homes, and right against the cornfields, the cattle ranchers rumble by.

Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Perhaps 50 children live in the campesino settlement, attending school in this ransacked shell of a hut.

Local ranchers first started raising cattle on Del Monte land in the 1970s, says Annie Bird, the co-director of Rights Action, which released a report on the Izabal violence this year. She says the arrangement here is hardly unique. "There is an industry-wide practice, not just by Del Monte, of using cattle ranching as a way of maintaining control over land," she says, speaking from her office in Guatemala City. "Cattle ranching has been not just an economic activity, but a form of policing."

These ranchers, particularly the Mendoza Mata and Ponce families, have reputations and influence that go far beyond their official business. They own nightclubs and hotels and bus lines. They fund political campaigns. In sworn testimony after the Lankin killings, a local policeman described Obdulio Mendoza Mata as "one of the most powerful people in Izabal."

The alliance between Del Monte and the cattle ranchers predates the Lankin murders. After the company fired those 918 employees in 1999, union leaders called for a work stoppage. In response, on October 13, an armed mob of 200, led by the ganaderos, stormed the union hall, took its leaders hostage, beat them, and forced them to announce on local radio that the walkout was canceled.

During the union hall thuggery, witnesses say, the ganaderos openly did Del Monte's bidding. In testimony filed as part of the Florida lawsuit, they say that earlier in the day, BANDEGUA officials met with Obdulio and Edvin Mendoza Mata in a Morales restaurant to plan the attack. Most brazenly, they charge, Del Monte's local head of security was at the hall while the mob threatened union officials.

The violence on the plantation has been worse than even the anti-union brutality. On March 8, 2002, the Lankin farmers were on their way to spray their cornfields when a group of about 40 armed men blocked the road telling them that this was "their land, and that we should leave because if we don't they will kill us," Lankin farmer Jesús Guisar Gutiérrez later testified. Among the aggressors, he said, were members of the Mendoza Mata and Ponce families.

Several policemen soon arrived. "Without saying a word, the police began shooting at us," reported Lankin resident Gregorio Vásquez Vásquez. Lankin farmer José Benjamín Pérez González, just 21 years old, was shot in the back. He fell to his knees. Then, Vásquez testified, "One of the Ponce family came near him, took his pistol out of his belt, and gave him a tiro de gracia"—a killing shot—"in the head."

It was the third killing, but the Benjamín Pérez murder was the first time Lankin farmers turned to the police; they had previously assumed local police wouldn't challenge the power of the ganaderos. They were right, it turned out. Though forensic evidence led an independent UN human rights mission to conclude that the campesinos' testimony "agreed with the results that the medical report showed," local authorities backed the ranchers, who blamed the murder on other campesinos. The farmers learned there's no point in making a stink, says their president. "It's worthless," Duarte says. "With Benjamín Pérez, there were so many witnesses. But nothing happened."

None of the other seven murders was so open that eyewitness testimony is available, but in virtually every case, say the Lankin farmers, cattle ranchers had publicly threatened those who were killed, telling them to leave the farm—or else.

On December 24, 2001, three months before the Benjamín Pérez slaying, unknown assailants shot and killed brothers Oswaldo and Antonio López Díaz. On November 1, 2002, Esteban Castillo and Cristóbal Rojas were murdered. Then on April 5, 2003, Lankin resident Jorge Gómez was shot and killed.

Edi López Oiliva died of gunshot and machete wounds after he left his Lankin home to go bathe, on April 21 this year, says Duarte. "We heard shots, but there are always shots so we didn't pay attention. Then in the morning we found his body." Most recently, on May 4, community leader Santiago Soto was shot to death while walking alone between nearby villages.

Hugo Duarte, president of the campesino leadership committee, says that despite the attacks the peasants are still cultivating some 700 acres of corn.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Even as the Lankin peasants have been slaughtered, the ganaderos have benefited from the inexpensive purchase of land once held by Del Monte and BANDEGUA, according to a legal study commissioned by the Committee for Peasant Unity, Guatemala's leading campesino rights organization.
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