One land defender's story of repression, criminalization and arrest: Young Garifuna woman arrested for reclaiming ancestral land

On November 11, 2016, Garifuna leader Medalime David Fernandez was arrested and tortured by Honduran police and soldiers from the U.S.-trained navy based in Puerto Castilla. The arrest occurred in the community of Guadalupe, one of six Garifuna communities in northern Honduras in the Trujillo Bay region. At the time, Medalime was being charged with illegal possession of land (usurpation) by Canadian tourist company CARIVIDA.

After Medalime was violently detained, the charges were dropped shortly after in a judicial process supported by the Garifuna organization, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH). There are still similar charges and arrest warrants out for three other Garifuna leaders from the same community. The attempt to criminalize and terrorize the Garifuna leaders come as residents, mostly youth, participate in a land reclamation effort to protect ancestral Garifuna lands that have been stolen by Canadian and American large-scale tourist developers.

On throughout the Trujillo Bay region, Garifuna land is being stolen and later sold in real estate offices and via presentations to interested buyers in Canada and the US. The land “developers” target working or middle class families looking to purchase cheap tropical properties to build their vacation homes. Many North American buyers do not understand the context in which they are purchasing their vacation lots. The Garifuna lands have illegally wound up in the hands of foreigners through several acts of corruption involving Honduran authorities and institutions that violate the collective rights of the local Afro-indigenous population.

From CARIVIDA's website at www.carivida.com. The website outlines CARIVIDA's plans to "develop" the lands that are being recuperated by Garifuna youth. None of the infrastructure mentioned in the video has been built and the company finds itself in a major land dispute with local Garifuna communities.

From CARIVIDA's website at www.carivida.com. The website outlines CARIVIDA's plans to "develop" the lands that are being recuperated by Garifuna youth. None of the infrastructure mentioned in the video has been built and the company finds itself in a major land dispute with local Garifuna communities.

The lands where CARIVIDA hopes to build a resort and villas, was purchased in 2013 by the company’s general manager, Canadian citizen Patrick Daniel Forseth. The lands are located in Guadalupe, the most western Garifuna community on the bay. Guadalupe is located in the municipality of Santa Fe in the department of Colon. CARIVIDA also owns a restaurant and café “CARIVIDA Club Café” in close proximity to the new cruise ship dock in the adjacent municipality on the bay that was built by another Canadian company, Banana Coast owned by Canadian “Porn King” Randy Jorgensen. Jorgensen is known as the largest tourist developer in the Bay and is implicated in significant legal battles led by Garifuna communities supported by OFRANEH. Recently, Jorgensen was prohibited from leaving Honduras as a criminal case against him proceeds in Honduran courts. He is being accused of illegal possession of Garifuna land.

The piece of land that CARIVIDA allegedly owns in Guadalupe is close to one of Jorgensen’s developments – Alta Vista. Patrick Forseth is a family member of the owners of Tranquility Bay Beach Retreat, located approximately 45 minutes from Forseth's alleged land in Guadalupe. Patrick and his father, Larry Forseth are both pilots and provide a chartered flight service to the Trujillo Bay for potential foreign buyers interested in the many large-scale tourism projects in the areas including those of the companies NJOI, Life Vision Development, CARIVIDA, Marea. Almost all of the mentioned companies are building on stolen Garifuna land that is being permitted by corruption and impunity that are rampant in Honduras.

All of these companies are owned by foreigners that know one another or have business dealings of some form with one another. Together, they are working to build a major tourist economy in Trujillo Bay or a Honduran-style Cancun. Many of the companies use the same lawyers and have attempted to evict Garifuna communities or land reclamations that attempt to recuperate the land that has been taken over and stolen from them.

Below is the transcription of an interview conducted by the Garifuna community radio station in Santa Fe, Radio Lumalali Giriga 94.7 FM on November 12, 2016. 

We are live and direct for Radio Lumalali Giriga 94.7 FM for our Facebook page “Santa Fe Giriga News”. We are with Medelime David Fernandez who was the victim of capture orders requested by the company CARIVIDA for the reclamation effort that is being carried out on lands of the Guadalupe community. Tell us what happened on November 11, 2016.

Medeline being held in a prison cell in Trujillo. Picture by OFRANEH

Medeline being held in a prison cell in Trujillo. Picture by OFRANEH

Medalime: Thank you for the opportunity to express this feeling. Yesterday, the raid was carried out between 4:00 and 4:15 pm when we were doing chores - the women were carrying firewood and the men cutting wood. In that moment, I received a call and I was given a heads-up that some police patrols were coming here [to the land reclamation area]. I didn’t immediately pay much attention to it because for various days, patrols had passed directly through here to Betulia because there had been problems with the hydroelectric dam [a dam that is being constructed to the west of the community of Guadalupe on the Betulia River]. So I continue doing what I was doing, when I went back to the area, I saw the patrols were here and they were coming into the land like they were going to capture a drug trafficker. So I continued and right way I was surprised thinking “damn, who are they here to take” without imagining that it was me that they wanted to arrest.

So I got closer to the kitchen area where we normally meet because its located at the entrance of the land reclamation and the police began asking for identification. As they know, no one carries identification in a land reclamation process but with this excuse they came into the area. At the same time in the corner, Mr. Roman Denardez [CARIVIDA security guard] was pointing me out so that the police could capture me. So to kill time, I made a phone call to a comrade to tell him to notify the community and then I immediately called our mother in this struggle, Miriam Miranda [General Coordinator of OFRANEH].

In precisely this moment, I was struggling with the police because my son was present at the site where this was all occurring, watching everything that was happening. I was making calls to Miriam to give the community time to come to the reclamation because all of this occurred within ten minutes. While I spoke with Miriam, they were dragging me [to the patrol cars] and I was struggling with them. When the police couldn’t handle me, a navy soldier that was completely hooded started to drag me, immediately I was able to break free. Then another naval soldier who was not hooded but was heavily armed, grabbed my right arm and put a gun to my head, so I said to him “are you going to kill me here because here there aren’t any drug traffickers, thieves, and much less dogs.” That was precisely the moment when I started to do what they said, I don’t know, I don’t know how I got it together but I did.

They let me go and when they did, I heard my son cry and yell and I totally lost control and I started to oppose them again. At no time did it cross my mind that they were going to hit me but there was a lot of physical, psychological, and verbal aggression. So I left walking towards the patrol car, crossed the small stream [that separates the land and the road], and once being in the patrol car, two of the naval soldiers came over and started saying things in a derogatory manner and they told me that they would put the hand cuffs the tightest way possible. When they couldn’t handcuff me – I flatly opposed it because I am not a delinquent. I am a young woman, a leader that demands her territory and defends it like a warrior because I need a piece of land where I can live.

So I totally opposed [what they were doing] and one police officer put a pile of traffic cones [used by the police for traffic stops and check points] on my head and started to twist my neck and a navy soldier was kicking me once I was in the police patrol car. Then, the other comrades that were captured left in the first patrol and I was put in the last one.

So this is how everything happened and here I am, always firm, I trust the struggle, it gives me a lot of strength, and force to continue in this struggle because as I have said, this is the first operation we are going to do. I have to defend my territory with tooth and nail and I am ready to give my life for it.

A message that I want to give to women and youth is that they come here and accompany us because this is the beginning of a large battle. Remember, as Garifuna, we are in the government’s plan but nevertheless, they want to displace us, kill us, but we have our rights and as Garifuna, the owners, land holders of these lands and we have to reclaim our territories.

Question: Medalime, when the police got here, did they say why they wanted to take you or how did they know that they were looking for you in particular? Did they present you with capture orders that they were supposedly carrying out?

Medalime: At no time did they present me with an order and with the help of Mr. Ramon Hernandez as I already mentioned, he pointed me out and that’s how they were able to identify me. But they did not show me any judge’s order nor did they give me a chance to talk to them so that I could have handed myself in, in a voluntary manner. They did everything with force as if I was a delinquent and because of that, that is why I defended myself.

Question: How do you feel and what were the conditions that they [the judges] put on you in the hearing today in the Trujillo courthouse?

Medalime: In the hearing today, they told me that every 15 days I have to go to the courthouse and sign before a judge, that I cannot be at the site of the land reclamation and also they told me that I cannot leave the country, but the lawyer is working on this and no one is going to arrest me and take me out of my house because this is my house and I will defend it well.

Question: How do you feel with the support you have received from the community of Guadalupe and the rest of the Garifuna population that identifies with you and that has been in solidarity with the struggle that is being carried out?

Medalime: I have more strength, more force and with more courage in order to continue defending my struggle.

Question: What is your final message for our followers and listeners?

Medalime: Let us unite, that with union there is force, we as Garifuna, we can, we have capabilities and we have all the courage to continue in this struggle. This is my message, especially for the women, for the youth. Continue informing yourself and continue trusting and believing in our leaders, and we have to believe in our leaders. Strength is in unity.