Strange Fruit

Guatemalan peasants murdered on Del Monte banana plantation

MORALES, GUATEMALA—Florinda Lollo Martínez lost her job so your bananas could stay cheap. And now she's so desperate to provide food for her family that she's risking her life to grow corn on a former banana plantation, even though thugs linked to her former employer, Fresh Del Monte Produce, have been accused of murdering eight of her fellow farmers in the past two years.

A single mother of two young children, Martínez worked for 12 years at the Del Monte packing plant here, where union workers earned up to $10 a day cutting green bananas into bunches, cleaning them, and packing them into cardboard boxes, for supermarkets in the eastern United States. That's good pay by Guatemalan standards, and along with it Del Monte, through its subsidiary BANDEGUA, provided subsidized housing in a local factory town called Tikal Sebol. The banana giant also let workers like Martínez grow corn and other vegetables on unused land.

But in 1999, Del Monte moved to cut costs in northeastern Guatemala, firing Martínez and 917 other members of the 4,000-strong Izabal Banana Workers Union. The unpopular move violated the company's contract with its laborers, and international outcry forced Del Monte to give some of the jobs back—but at lower wages, with fewer benefits, no housing, and no fields to plant food on for their families. Martínez and hundreds of others refused Del Monte's offer.

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.

On October 11, 2001, with pressure to feed their families mounting, some of the former banana workers decided to occupy nearly 1,000 acres of Del Monte land, known as the Lankin farm.

"I had nowhere else to go, nothing to do," says Martínez when asked why she decided to join the illegal invasion. "My kids were hungry."

Next month will mark the second anniversary of their uprising, with Martínez and several hundred other campesinos still on the old Del Monte plantation, living in what remains of their Tikal Sebol homes and planting subsistence crops.

For Del Monte and BANDEGUA, the Lankin campesinos are more than just an irritant; standing by while peasants occupy valuable farmland sets a bad precedent. So the multinational corporation, based in Coral Gables, Florida, has moved swiftly to distance itself from the conflict—and to get rid of the peasants.

Soon after the occupation began, Del Monte sold the Lankin land for perhaps a tenth of its market value to a group of notorious local thugs. Called ganaderos, or cattle ranchers, these gunmen have often served to control dissent in the steamy Izabal region. Local advocates say what happened when Del Monte turned its back on its former workers was predictable: Since the occupation began, they claim, the ganaderos have shot and killed eight Lankin farmers—three in the last six months.

The campesinos can do little in their own country to seek justice. They can only hope their global allies will be able to pressure Del Monte in the United States. Lawyers with the International Labor Rights Fund are already trying, helping exiled union leaders sue the company in a Florida court under the 214-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act. They're accusing Del Monte of responsibility for violence in their 1999 effort to quash the union, known in Spanish as SITRABI.

Meanwhile, activists both from Guatemala and the U.S. are working in the community, investigating the Lankin murders.


image
Lankin farmers have been meeting with human rights organizers, seeking legal remedies for their plight.
photo: Matt Pacenza
Ask the banana workers why some 500 people remain here despite the killings, and the answer is always the same—if they didn't, they might starve. It's not just a rhetorical response. The World Food Program estimated last year that 60,000 Guatemalan children were suffering from acute malnutrition, with 6,000 close to death.

"There's no land and no place to work anywhere else," says Olga Esperanza León, 42, a former banana worker, explaining why she leaves her three children and elderly mother in a nearby village to work Lankin fields a few days every week.

The reward for braving the ranchers' wrath is significant. "This land's good for everything," says Roberto Méndez Miguel, the vice president of the campesino association. Just as bananas have flourished for a century, now corn, yuca, and plantains all thrive in the floodplains of the Río Motagua. The campesinos are currently planting about 700 acres.

The peasants survive here with no electricity or toilets. Water must be hauled by hand from wells. Disease-bearing mosquitoes and biting flies are everywhere; the only relief comes when the campesinos burn empty corn husks to smoke them out. The Lankin farmers are noticeably skinny, even for this impoverished region, where half the locals are poor, a third are illiterate, and a quarter lack running water.

Plantation families currently live in crude wooden huts, or in the few rickety wooden houses and metal trailers that remain in Tikal Sebol. After Del Monte forced its fired workers to abandon the village in 1999, looters stripped all the wiring, plumbing, roofing, and windows.

"They robbed everything," says Hugo Leonel Milian Duarte, the 32-year-old, rope-thin, intense president of the campesino leadership committee. What's left today is an eerie ghost town, its houses plundered to the beams and floors. The peasants dream of rebuilding Tikal Sebol, but with the future of the land uncertain, the nongovernmental organizations that help the poor in most of rural Guatemala won't invest in projects like creating access to potable water, building brick houses, or establishing a health post.

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.


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.


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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.

In February 2000, Del Monte sold plantation land that includes the Lankin acres to Producers and Exporters, or Prexa, for $315,000. BANDEGUA and Prexa are effectively the same company—they share the same attorneys, the same legal officers, and 100 percent of the bananas harvested by Prexa are sold to BANDEGUA.

Prexa then turned around and sold 1,850 acres of Lankin land in August 2002 to its current owner, the Bobos Cattle Company, for about $150,000, which amounts to about $82 per acre. Little is known about the Bobos Cattle Company—under Guatemalan law, the inner workings of private companies are mysteries—but witnesses say one of its apparent partners was present when Benjamín Pérez was murdered.

Fertile river-bottom land in Guatemala costs much more than $82 an acre—about 10 times as much, experts say. So why did Del Monte/Prexa sell its prized holding at such a discount? Consider the timing: Ten months before the sale, a hungry and determined bunch of peasants had taken up residence. The banana companies were eager to be rid of this nuisance—so, advocates argue, they turned to the ganaderos. And they didn't have to pay them; they just gave them cheap land and got out of the way.

"BANDEGUA is responsible for the violence," says Duarte. "But they put these other men on us so they won't get their hands dirty."

Adds Barrera, the government human rights lawyer, "The company BANDEGUA, so as not to directly confront the campesinos, has offered good prices, so that the ganaderos will act for them."

Fresh Del Monte Produce refused to respond to these allegations. Del Monte legal counsel Bruce Jordan told the Voice, "We don't comment on items like this."


Practically, there's little the Lankin peasants can do to fight off their eviction. Democratic institutions in Guatemala are weak. Judges, human rights lawyers, journalists, prosecutors, union activists, and campesino organizers in the Izabal region have all received death threats in 2003.

This climate leaves the Lankin campesinos with no obvious solution to the fear and violence that grip their daily lives. They know what they want—"a piece of land, to provide food for us, and food and education for our children," says Duarte—but achieving that seems nearly impossible. The peasants say they're not going anywhere, mostly because there's nowhere to go. "We'll stay with this struggle to the end," says farmer Adelmo López.

One slim possibility that could help the Lankin farmers is the Alien Tort Claims Act, a 1789 law that allows non-U.S. citizens to sue for serious crimes like genocide, torture, and slavery. Over the past decade, suits against corporations accused of international crimes have flowered: Lawyers are going after ExxonMobil for torture, rape, and murder in Indonesia; Unocal for torture and murder in Burma; and Coca-Cola for murder in Colombia.

Most notably, the International Labor Rights Fund, on behalf of five SITRABI leaders who fled Guatemala for the United States, has sued Fresh Del Monte Produce in Florida. The lawsuit alleges that the $2 billion company conspired to kidnap, torture, and unlawfully detain the SITRABI leaders during the 1999 union hall takeover.

None of these efforts will go forward if the Bush administration has its way. In the Unocal case, which has proceeded the furthest, Attorney General Ashcroft filed a friend-of-the-court brief in May with the Ninth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals, contending that Alien Tort suits hamper American foreign policy. "[I]t is the function of the political branches, not the courts, to respond" to human rights violations. He and his cohorts have even argued that the cases will impede the war on terror; in the ExxonMobil suit, they suggested it could cause the Indonesian government to stop cooperating with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

For now, the Alien Tort suit filed on their behalf in Florida looks like the Lankin campesinos' best chance. They'd like to see Del Monte at least grant them land to live on and grow enough food to feed their families. But a distant court is unlikely to offer immediate help to these peasants, who face eviction any day. And murder every day.

"This community doesn't have a lot of time," says Bird, of Rights Action. "They're being killed pretty frequently."

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