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Honduran Hydra

The unstoppable Guapinol mine
On the left, a photo of a river (the Guapinol River) tracing its way through the jungle toward green mountains. On the right: a group of men lower a casket into the ground.

The courthouse in Tocoa, near the north coast of Honduras, looked abandoned. The roof was caving in, and a flock of pigeons had taken roost in the molding rafters. But a trial was going on there—one of the most watched in the country.

The afternoon I arrived in February 2022, sticky with sweat, a lawyer for the prosecution was railing against the defendants, who, in his reckoning, were violent saboteurs of peaceful protest. False environmentalists, he called them. Delinquents. Criminals. The men in question, the so-called “Guapinol Eight,” sat in silence, watched over by baby-faced guards armed with Belgian assault rifles. They had ended up before a judge after spending years in prison for organizing to defend the rivers in their villages from a two-hundred-hectare open-pit iron-oxide mine operated by Pinares Investments. They’d spent years in prison and had become an international cause célèbre. Only days remained before their final fate was to be decided.

For many, the verdict would serve as a litmus test to see whether things might change in Honduras, a country notorious for the murderous repression of environmental defenders who dared to organize their communities against the encroachment of mining and agribusiness. For twelve years, the country had convulsed under successive far-right administrations that came to power following a 2009 military coup greenlit by the U.S. State Department—administrations just as predisposed to grant concessions to those same ecocidal companies, liberally and often illegally, as to deploy army and police to protect drug traffickers.

Would there, in fact, be change in Honduras?

But things now seemed like they could change. In November 2021, weeks before the trial started, the self-proclaimed leftist Xiomara Castro had been elected president, becoming the country’s first female head of state. Castro, whose husband, the liberal centrist “Mel” Zelaya, was kidnapped by the military during the 2009 coup, promised to free the Guapinol Eight. It was part of her bid to transform Honduras: she vowed to overhaul the economy, in which more than 60 percent live in poverty; to bring an end to corporate enclaves; to legalize abortion and improve women’s rights; to demilitarize public security and end the death squads. “We’re breaking chains and breaking traditions,” Xiomara proclaimed when she was inaugurated in January 2022 before a crowd of mostly working-class residents in the Honduran capital. “We must uproot ourselves from twelve years of dictatorship.”

Nearly one hundred forty miles north, the trial in Tocoa carried on. Through long boiling hot afternoons, the prosecution and defense outlined meticulous arguments of what, exactly, had transpired during the 2018 displacement of a protest camp near Guapinol, one of the many villages affected by the mine, during which the defendants were accused of burning a car belonging to Pinares private security contractors as well as containers the company was going to use for offices, and briefly holding their head of security hostage. (These were the three charges that ultimately brought them to the court: several others had been dismissed beforehand.)

In an act of solidarity with the prisoners, family, friends, and sympathizers set up a camp outside of the courthouse where, from dawn to dusk, volunteers in straw hats served cups of coffee and plates of tortillas and beans. They chatted about politics through misty afternoon rainstorms while sucking on raw-cut sticks of sugarcane. Their conversations were upbeat: If the country had managed to elect an opposition candidate like Castro, then who was to say the prisoners wouldn’t be freed? On February 10, the morning the final verdict was to be read, more than a thousand showed up at the camp, some of whom had walked four hours from the mountains to be present for the hearing. They burned incense and held a prayer circle.

Back inside the courtroom, the judge read out the verdict. There were gasps, a flurry of whispers, and then curses. The people stood up, shocked, and went into the hall. It was only when I came to where the defense lawyers had convened near the judge’s stand that it became clear: the men, despite it all, would still go to jail—for up to fourteen years. “The people have made a mistake to trust the justice system in this country,” one of the prisoners, Orvin Hernández, told me in a stiff, matter-of-fact voice. “Because it’s always in favor of transnationals and private businesses. It’s been that way historically. Unfortunately, it happened to us today.”

The court observers returned to the crowd at the camp, stunned and confused, their “Freedom for Guapinol” signs still hanging off the tents, like a defeated army. Almost no one spoke. As the prosecutor’s car pulled through the gate and nudged into the crowd, dipping through potholes, a man came up and slammed his fist on the hood of the car. Puto cachureco! he yelled, using the pejorative for the conservative party associated with the former government that supported the mine: fucking cachureco! Ten minutes later, as the bus containing the convicted men drove away, the crowd shouted and waved to them. They smiled silently through the tinted windows as the bus rounded the corner and whisked them off to prison.

A day later, I was back in my home on the other side of the country in San Pedro Sula when a video began circulating on Libertad para Guapinol, the Telegram channel used by international activists to keep up with the conflict. There was a party in downtown Tocoa. Some of the same faces who’d been among the morose crowd the day of the verdict could be seen shouting, smiling, waving banners.

The Guapinol Eight had been freed.

Indeed, as she’d promised in her inaugural speech, Castro had granted amnesty to the Guapinol Eight. Then, several weeks later, her administration announced that Honduras would be made “free of open-pit mining.” For many, the surprise turn of events was hard to believe. Was it true? Was violence against environmental defenders going to end? Would corrupt mining projects be rolled back at last, and rights for the environment restored? Would there, in fact, be change in Honduras?

A lush tropical rainforest valley. In the middle distance, a vast production plant for iron oxide scars the landscape. Dark clouds gather overhead.
The Pinares production plant. | Seth Berry

Six months later, I walked with Orvin Hernández in the mountains of the Colón department to look for answers to that question. Hernández, now a free man, lives in Aduancho, one in a string of villages leading into a shield of mountains along the edge of Carlos Escaleras National Park. Getting there requires a several-hour drive up a narrow dirt road that snakes through a tight canyon, as well as three crossings of the roiling waters of the San Pedro River—a waterway that, in the rainy season, can become impassable for days.

From the village, we walked down toward the water, Hernández kicking open banks of mud to drain the road of stagnant, mosquito-breeding pools of water, before turning into the woods and descending through the undergrowth to the fork of San Pedro and Miangul rivers, two of dozens of tributaries of the Aguán River in the valley below. On the river to the left, coming down from the Pinares mine, the water ran a chocolatey brown. Xiomara Castro had promised an end to open-pit mining. But the mine was still operating.

Limpio, Limpio, Limpio, he says, when I ask Hernández how the river was before the mine. He almost spits the words out: clean, clean, clean.

The villagers of Aduancho had been landless farmers from departments to the south and west who moved in the early 1980s, attracted by the prospect of cheap land, according to Hernández’s father. They may not have known it then, but already, changes were underway that would embroil the region in decades of conflict. Under the umbrellas of U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency, the Aguán Valley—located strategically on the north coast of Honduras, where the roads end and give way to the Mosquitia rainforest—was in the process of being militarized. On bases in the valley below, Honduran soldiers trained by the United States in turn trained Contras, the right-wing army that waged hit-and-run attacks on Nicaragua, while at the same time participating in their own homegrown death squads that executed and disappeared dozens of dissidents.

The Aguán simultaneously became a major thoroughfare for drugs, moved in large part by elements of the Honduran military, who’d been parlayed into the CIA’s conspiracy to fund the Contras through cocaine money after Congress ruled such financing illegal, and then kept up the business after the Cold War was over. By the early 1990s, repression of dissent greased the skids for sweeping economic restructuring—part of a wider push to enforce neoliberalism across the Global South through structural adjustment measures authored by the IMF and the World Bank.

But there were some winners—like the business magnate Miguel Facussé, part of an ascendant, drug-connected oligarchy that spent the next three decades seeking to convert the region into a sprawling, export-oriented, agro-industrial behemoth. Though mining would come later, the first targets were the collective farms along the valley floor, which, through allegedly fraudulent means, were acquired and turned into the sprawling African palm plantations that now stretch as far as the eye can see. The largest landowner of these plantations was Facussé’s Dinant Corporation.

Soon, the killings began. Twenty victims, most killed in death-squad-style ambushes. Then fifty, ninety, a hundred twenty, a hundred fifty.

The likelihood of Facussé’s complicity in the drug trade became clear in 2011, via leaked U.S. State Department cables, but it came as no small surprise, considering he was already known to be one of the most powerful backers behind the 2009 coup. The protests that followed were some of the largest in Honduran history, and amid the clouds of teargas that enveloped the country, campesinos, or cooperative farmers, in the Aguán physically reoccupied plantations in a desperate bid to regain their land. It was one of the last bargaining chips they felt they had under a government widely seen as illegitimate. It was also a dangerous wager to have made on the turf of the oligarchs behind the coup.

Soon, the killings began. Twenty victims, most killed in death-squad-style ambushes. Then fifty, ninety, a hundred twenty, a hundred fifty: a systematic wave of assassinations. The vast majority of the victims were cooperative members. At first, reports showed Honduran soldiers, alongside private security operatives, to be behind the killings, but later they were carried out by paramilitary groups, organized militias that included members of campesino movements. From afar, they looked like armed farmer gangs, overzealous peasant leaders who’d greedily joined hands with organized crime. The campesinos, it seemed, had stooped to killing one another. On closer examination, though, they turned out to be death squads organized by military intelligence commanders—armed cells in which local sicarios, or hitmen, were given military assault rifles and coupled with off-duty cops, former soldiers, and ex-security guards contracted by Dinant. It wasn’t just that the emergence of these groups broke apart campesino movements; they were criminalized, painted as savage peasants who, left to their own devices, were prone to murder. In 2017, a lawsuit in the United States accused Dinant of financing “paramilitary death squads” in the Aguán. (Dinant representatives have denied any connections to these groups, claiming, to the contrary, that the company is besieged by criminal gangs “masquerading as poor campesinos,” hurting hard-working families and driving migration out of the region).

But many villages that would later be affected by the Pinares mine had, in fact, emerged almost unscathed from the years of land conflict. Daniel Marquez, one of the eight pardoned prisoners and a resident of Guapinol since 1993, recalls the village as being a relatively tranquil enclave even after assassinations and military checkpoints became the norm in the 2010s. “Guapinol was never a part of the land conflict,” he told me. “Many people had migrated to the United States to work and then buy their land back here.” But migration out of the community has taken a darker turn in recent years. “Now it’s children and women . . . Because of the mining business.”

The origin of the Pinares mine dates back to late December 2013, when members of Honduras’s congress convened an emergency session. It wasn’t a political or economic crisis that had brought them there. The task, rather, was to resize the borders of Carlos Escaleras National Park so that mining for iron oxide—used in everything from cosmetics to paint—could be allowed in the park’s most highly protected area, the zona nucleo. Later, Tocoa’s mayor Adán Fúnez, a longtime proponent of the mine, claimed that the mining concessions had been requested by the Rivera Maradiaga, the two brothers at the head of the Cachiros drug-trafficking ring. But on paper they would be granted to EMCO Mining (now Pinares Investments), a business run by Lenir Pérez and his wife Ana Facussé—the daughter of drug-trafficking palm oil magnate and military-coup-monger Miguel.

The concession gave Pinares the green light to despoil over two hundred hectares, or nearly four hundred football fields, in pursuit of the rusty powder. After extraction, the iron oxide would then be trucked down through subtropical forests to the Aguán Valley, where it would be prepared for the global market in a massive processing plant that loomed over the villages of Lempira and Guapinol. From the start, it was clear the entire operation threatened the rivers that crisscrossed the region—and the livelihood of those that depend on them. Pinares representatives, meanwhile, argued that the mine would bring development and desperately needed jobs to an impoverished, violent region—an unironic repackaging of development as the solution to the problems it perpetuates. This story has been repeated across Latin America.

Nevertheless, construction soon got underway, and tensions started mounting. While Pinares touted their “environmentally responsible” mining, the company smeared their opponents as “false environmentalists,” armed and organized criminals financed from outside the region. By late 2018, tensions reached a boiling point when soldiers and police fired teargas and live ammunition into an eighty-eight-day-old protest camp where water defenders were preventing construction equipment from going into the park. At least nine anti-mine activists and mine workers were killed in the wake of the displacement, none of which were ever investigated.

The following year, as the campaign against the mine continued, thirty-two members of the water defense movement turned themselves in to the authorities in an attempt to demonstrate their innocence through voluntary compliance. The accusations proved flimsy, and a majority of them were released in a little less than a month. But eight members of the group weren’t so lucky—and were forced to stay behind. They became known as the “Guapinol Eight.”

“We condemn and reject the political criminalization of the defenders of #Guapinol, ignoring recommendations and international agreements signed by Honduras,” Xiomara Castro tweeted in December 2020. “This dictatorship keeps Guapinol’s environmental defenders in jail. We demand [their] release.” Castro had already accepted a nomination for the candidacy on LIBRE party’s ticket to the presidency in January 2020, which she formally won in March 2021. She campaigned amid escalating violence: almost thirty candidates, activists, and their relatives were assassinated. Years of violence, grift, and botched responses to both catastrophic pandemics and hurricanes meant people would vote for anyone to sack the Narco-dictatura.

But few thought Castro would actually be allowed to win. The prevailing assumption—shared by almost everyone from Beltway foreign policy commentators to militant Honduran leftists—was that Honduran democracy had deteriorated to such an extent that the 2021 election would be a repeat of its predecessor, which had been stolen in broad daylight and was followed by a brutal crackdown that left dozens dead.

The specter of a repeated fraud loomed. Upscale businesses in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula boarded their windows in anticipation of post-election violence. When she did, against all odds, win, the country was electrified. But dismantling a criminal-military-extractive state would not be easy. Castro campaigned on lofty but vague promises, pointedly declining to outline concrete policy details. Annoyed as business magnates such as Lenir Pérez appeared to have been by the election of a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, the power of big business wasn’t going away. Pinares had every intention of completing its mine.

The trial for the “Guapinol Eight” began in late November 2021. Each day they were driven from a medium-security prison to the courthouse, through the African palm plantations where almost two hundred have been assassinated. To the south were the serrated ridgelines of Carlos Escaleras, where the Pinares mine was being blown out of the landscape with dynamite. The prison bus was often trailed by brand new cars with darkly tinted windows. Back in the prison, Daniel Márquez was informed by a prisoner known to be a sicario that “they told me to look for people to kill you.” International observers waiting outside the courtroom reported the presence of pistol-toting men in suits—what some alleged were private security operatives and others recall as plainclothes police officers.

As it dragged on, details of the trial of the Guapinol Eight were disseminated via Twitter and Telegram by a loose array of NGOs, which Pinares has repeatedly suggested are funded from “dark places.” So it raised eyebrows when a new NGO emerged last January—the “Organization for Environment, Human Rights, and Justice,” or ADJ, by its Spanish acronym—with the notable difference that it was a vocal supporter of the Pinares mine.

I met its leader, Heriberto Alemán, at a posh coffee shop not far from the courthouse in Tocoa last October. Loquacious, confident, and eager to share his views, Alemán claimed he created ADJ of his own accord after growing tired of “bias” in other human rights organizations. Though search results of Alemán show a slew of articles and video interviews posted on Facebook by local news outlets wherein he offers resounding, unwavering approval of Pinares’ environmental record, he insists that ADJ’s broader mission is visiting communities and “[orienting] the population to issues of human rights.” ADJ is only coincidentally pro-mine, he said.

There’s no secret as to his disdain for the campesino cooperatives that’ve retaken Dinant-claimed plantations since late 2021. “They don’t have the same reputation as the old [land rights] movements,” he said. The Guapinol environmentalists were hardly any better. “They were terrorizing and threatening the fiscales,” he said of the solidarity camp in front of the courthouse.

Few could have seen that the devastating conviction of those prisoners would, within days of the verdict being read in February 2022, turn into freedom—and a few days after that a promise to end open-pit mining across Honduras. Things, finally, seemed like they were changing. So what could possibly go wrong?

A group of men piled into the back of a truck, some holding machetes, drives down a dirt road.
Campesino land defenders chase away Honduran military, National Police, and private security guards from Dinant, who were attempting to displace a land occupation in a disputed African palm plantation. | Seth Berry

They blocked the road with boulders and palm fronds. They unraveled a long canvas sign, bringing the vehicles to a stop—a traffic jam that would end up stretching for miles. Drivers stepped out into the oppressive August humidity, annoyed but not unaccustomed to this practice, one of the only ways poor Hondurans can get the outside world’s attention. Several dozen people, their faces wrapped in T-shirts or bandannas, some wielding rusty machetes, had closed off the only highway on the northern coast. It was the first protest against the Pinares mine—and the government’s failure to rein in its operations—since Castro came to power eight months before.

Things weren’t going well. That Castro’s campaign promises might not only go unfulfilled but betrayed was made clear that afternoon last August when, as a light rain fell, a truck of military police forced its way through the jeering crowd of protesters and past their blockade—to deliver drums of gasoline to the mine.

Since their creation in 2013, the military police have racked up a reputation for torture and extrajudicial killings as a part of its brutal Mano Dura, or iron fist, strategy against gangs. Though it earned them a modicum of popularity among those living in gang-controlled slums, they also became notorious for their indiscriminate violence against protesters, as well as the security they provided for extractive projects. They’ve faced accusations of working as gunmen in the drug trade and selling their services as assassins-for-hire. The unit was pushed by Juan Orlando Hernández, now facing trial in the United States for drug trafficking, while he was president of the Honduran congress, in his attempt to give the military power over the police—his “Praetorian Guard,” in the words of one critic.

Castro had been a critic of the unit before her election. But after a series of high-profile massacres last summer, she decided that—promises to demilitarize notwithstanding—the unit would be kept on the streets. And here they were, providing gasoline and armed security to a mining project mired in controversy and blood.

“There was a period of silence” on the part of the Pinares mine after the liberation of the prisoners, in the words of Rita Romero, a lawyer who has worked on the prisoners’ case. But by early April, Adán Funez, the mayor in support of the Pinares mine, began working to organize a town assembly in La Laguna, a stretch of villages on the road leading to the pit, where a majority of residents support the mining project.

Though cabildo abiertos, or town assemblies, are technically required as a part of the “prior consultation” necessary for companies to move forward with mining projects, they’re also used for rural communities to present general concerns to the local government: rural democracy, Central American-style. Leonel George and Juán López, two anti-mine activists inside the municipal government, couldn’t help but notice that Fúnez had spent years dismissing the idea of convening a town assembly in Tocoa or the Sector San Pedro, where opposition to the mine is higher. (In Tocoa, for example, a widely attended cabildo abierto in 2019, presided over by Mel Zelaya, decreed that mining from Pinares was banned—though it predictably went ignored.)

Though Fúnez made his money, in part, from founding a bus company, U.S. prosecutors stoked local suspicions when they alleged in 2017 that he’d acquired power as a political operative for the Cachiros drug network. Though part of LIBRE, Castro’s left party, he’s spent years voting conservative alongside the National Party, and has been one of the most aggressive supporters of Pinares. So it shocked many when, just days after the Guapinol Eight were released, Castro expanded his power by granting him the governorship for the entire department of Colón.

“That was a major slap in the face,” an anonymous Canadian human rights worker who works with anti-mine activists told me. “This is a person who has been behind hate campaigns, stigmatization campaigns, threats of violence.”

It soon began to seem like support for Pinares was coming from more than just corrupt, backwater strongmen.

On April 29, the town assembly Fúnez had pushed for convened in La Laguna, an event witnesses described as having all the trappings of a company-orchestrated party in celebration of the mine—a “trap” in the words of Juan López. Off work for the day, dozens of Pinares mine workers served food and drinks to the hundreds who’d gathered for the assembly—under the watch of soldiers and a contingent of private security operatives. Though the immediate points of discussion were the paved roads and schools the impoverished region desperately needed, each person who addressed the crowd ended their speeches with statements on how the projects wouldn’t be possible without the mine. None of the four anti-mine representatives present could get a word in. The “historic” event concluded with a resolution to “request development projects and reaffirm support for the Pinares Investments mining company.”

It soon began to seem like support for Pinares was coming from more than just corrupt, backwater strongmen. “We’re really uncertain what’s going to happen with this government,” Esly Banegas, a longtime activist whose name appeared on a military intelligence hitlist leaked in 2016, told me last summer. “They received us, but also received Pinares.”

By this past summer, hope that Castro would fulfill her promise of ending open-pit mining was beginning to sour. For many, the pledge “ended up being a press release with absolutely no weight,” as one human rights worker put it. Among the discontented were the ex-prisoners themselves—who were now scattered across villages near the Aguán Valley, not far from the mine they’d been thrown in jail trying to resist. 

“If that mine doesn’t go, this house isn’t going to be worth anything,” Daniel Márquez told me last August when I met him on his family’s land—next to the concrete house left unfinished at the time of his imprisonment—at the edge of Guapinol. “Because the water won’t work.” The continuation of the Pinares mine has loomed over his post-prison life. “I don’t believe or even know what Xiomara Castro says,” he said. He is now considering going to the United States. “The municipality of Tocoa is free of mining, but it’s not respected. There was a cabildo abierto, and it’s not respected. [The government] hasn’t done what it promised.”

The fears of repression have returned. At a government-mandated inspection of the mine in August, company representatives were joined by military officials in insinuating murderous criminality on the part of the mine’s opposition. “Some of the people in [the government inspection team] seemed to have a pro-mine attitude,” said Limbor Velasquez, a forest engineer from the Fundación San Alonso Rodríguez who was present for the inspection. He characterized it as perfunctory—a hollow charade:  “It was like they were checking off a checklist.”

The following morning, six trucks full of soldiers and private security operatives, armed with shotguns, pistols, and bulletproof vests, accompanied the entourage of government inspectors. There were only a handful of anti-mine activists invited, dwarfed by their armed-to-the-teeth, pro-Pinares counterparts. For three hours the caravan snaked up through the mountains until they arrived at the mining concession, carved out of the zona nucleo of the national park.

What did they see up there? Everyone on the inspection tour had their phones taken away—for “security reasons.” And just like the Gaza Strip and certain U.S. military bases, the concessions can’t be seen from Google Maps, where the area is blocked out by squares of satellite imagery years older than those which surround it. Velasquez said he saw hectares upon hectares of excavated sediment spilling outside the main concession and into the second one, which doesn’t yet have an environmental permit, as well as the zona nucleo of the national park, where mining activities and extractive spill-off are both explicitly prohibited—even after the exemptions advanced by Congress in 2013. Satellite images purchased privately by the German NGO Heinrich Böll Stiftung confirm the contours of his descriptions, showing the steady expansion of the deforested area into the zona nucleo. Several images that were leaked to the press last year show a similar landscape of devastation: a jarring expanse of rust-colored earth in the heart of the national park.

Heriberto Alemán, the founder of the pro-Pinares ADJ, who was also present on the inspection tour, confirmed that there was sediment inside the zona nucleo, but said that activists were exaggerating its scale. “Environmental damage is inevitable,” he said.

Over five months later, MiAmbiente, the environmental agency now headed by the LIBRE militant Lucky Medina, has yet to release the results of the inspection. I made dozens of calls to the agency, trying to get an update on the inspection and Castro’s promise to end open-pit mining. Eventually, an official agreed to speak. We met after hours at the agency’s compound, not far from the stadium in Tegucigalpa where President Castro was inaugurated. The official told me it was a mistake to assume that open-pit mining was somehow going away. “We put out a second communique about that . . . it’s against illegal open-pit mining. Illegal gold mining. We clarified that we’re going to attack illegal mining.”

But wasn’t that a betrayal of what was promised? Wasn’t that a far cry from the pledge made to people, like those in the Aguán Valley, who’d been struggling to protect their rivers? The official, a former participant in social movements who, like many activists under Castro, was absorbed into the state apparatus, stiffened. “The [laws surrounding mining] are overly flexible, and only cancel projects with contamination on a large scale.” Contamination of water with sediment to the point that rivers run like chocolate, they said, doesn’t count. The Pinares mine, they said, was going nowhere. “It’s not a priority,” the official told me later. (Pinares did not respond to my request for comment.)

Left: a framed photography of Carlos Escalares. Right: Reynaldo Domínguez stands amid greenery and trees with his hand on his hip.
Left: an annual memorial service for Carlos Escaleras, a politician and pioneering environmentalist from Tocoa, who was assassinated in 1997 for fighting against the palm oil corporation Dinant. The national park where the Pinares iron mine is operating is named after him. Right: Reynaldo Domínguez is considered the lead activist for the Guapinol community in the fight to protect the river against the Pinares mine. | Seth Berry

Castro claims her hands are tied when it comes to these injustices because of the legal system left in place by the narco-dictatorship. Edy Tábora, a high-profile human rights lawyer who represented the Guapinol Eight during their trial, doesn’t buy this, saying there are multiple concrete things the government could, but is failing, to do: “There isn’t any plan for a legal reform, which is what can really permit the prohibition of open-pit mining,” he said. “There also hasn’t been, to date, any mining project that has been stopped.” (Two months after we spoke, on February 19, that argument became less cogent after the Honduran Congress voted on a new Supreme Court, divided more-or-less evenly between the three parties; still, to date, there yet to be a motion in Congress to reform the country’s mining laws).  

I went again to Guapinol in October to get a sense of how things had been going. I met with Reynaldo Domínguez, one of the water defenders from the original group of thirty-three prisoners. Dominguez, since then, has remained on the frontlines of the struggle against the mine. We met at a mom-and-pop pulpería full of nineties arcade games, and then decided to go down to the river.

“Do you hear that?” he said after we came into the forest, a layer of browning leaves crunching beneath our feet. I assumed he was talking about the warbling hush of moving water some hundred feet away. “No,” he said, pointing it out again. It wasn’t the river but the sound, hard and clear, like distant explosions, of machinery working at the mineral processing complex, visible past the barbed wire watchtowers across the opposite bank. “They don’t care if the environment is destroyed,” Domínguez said of the government.

A month after we met, rumors swept through the region that German Alfaro, a now-retired military intelligence officer who helped arm the paramilitary groups that have proliferated in the Aguán, had allegedly returned to the Aguán as a security consultant for the Dinant Corporation and Pinares Investments—increasing fears of an imminent crackdown. (Dinant denies this.)

In January, those fears were realized. While returning from work, Domínguez’s brother Alí and Jairo Bonilla—both of them water defenders—were murdered, execution-style, at the entrance to Guapinol. Their deaths came just two weeks after the murder of Mauricio Esquivel—a land defender from a cooperative fighting Dinant—whose body was dumped sixteen miles up the road. Less than two weeks after Alí and Jairo were killed, Omar Cruz—the leader of another cooperative fighting Dinant—was executed alongside his brother-in-law by unknown assassins outside his home in Tocoa. And less than a month after Cruz’s killing, another land defender contesting land with Dinant, Hipolito Rivas, was assassinated alongside his twenty-six-year-old son while on their motorcycle near Trujillo.

Almost eleven months after the liberation of the Guapinol Eight, the funeral for Jairo and Alí proceeded through the streets of Guapinol. Hundreds of mourners turned out. They sang slow, sad, biblical chants led by graying old women with leather-bound hymnals. They brought the caskets to a cemetery overgrown with weeds. And then several men gripping ropes, sweat-stained, barking among one another, lowered the caskets into the earth. Later that night, after the crowd dissipated, there was a soft, barely perceptible rain.

“I don’t trust anything this government says,” Reinaldo told me in his home the following day. To him, it was clear who had killed his brother, the people who made it possible. “They don’t want to change anything.”