TRIUNFO DE LA CRUZ, Honduras — Darwin Centeno can still hear the cries of his neighbors on the morning when armed men dragged away his cousin.
“They’re taking Sneider!” he heard them shout before sunrise that day in July 2020, moments after several trucks bearing police markings rolled into the coastal Honduran village of Triunfo de la Cruz.
Alberth “Sneider” Centeno is a local leader of the Garifuna, the Honduran Black community of the Caribbean Coast. Darwin, a fisherman who was prepping his boat for the day, raced to the scene. But he was too late: Sneider had already been shoved into a truck, guarded by more than a dozen masked men in police uniforms with assault rifles. As they moved down the road in their vehicles, the gunmen dragged four more Garifuna men from their houses before driving off in the predawn light.
The five men were never seen again.
“We’re practically fighting against a monster,” Centeno told VICE World News of the turbulent year since the disappearances. There’s been a sea change in the community since the men were snatched, he said: People fear speaking out, anonymous threats arrive by text, and entire families have fled.
The “monster” Centeno referred to is the violence and repression that the Garifuna people feel pressing in from all sides. They say they’re fighting back against threats to their land and livelihood from powerful business interests, organized crime, and a state that appears to be colluding with both.
The Garifuna have a deep history of fighting efforts to buy off or steal their lands by palm oil barons, tourist developers, and drug traffickers. This stretch of coastline has been the heart of particularly fierce controversy: In a landmark 2015 case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Honduran state for violating the ancestral property rights of the Garifuna living in Triunfo de la Cruz. One of the men behind the complaint was Sneider.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last year referred a second case to the Court involving the failure of the Honduran government to respect Garifuna land rights against tourism development. Honduran authorities did not address complaints of threats and harassment against the Garifuna for defending their land, the commision said, noting that it results in “the continuation of conflict situations or acts of violence against the community.”
It’s been 240 years since the Garifuna landed on that stretch of the Caribbean coast, and they are fighting to stay on the land they claimed then, said Jenny Herrera, a member of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), the Garifunas’ main political organization.
“They’re killing us,” said Herrera, who’s from Triunfo de la Cruz. “Disappearing us, dispossessing us.”
The long fight to defend their land has stoked a deep-seated mistrust, one that is now directed at what the Garifuna see as a new threat to their territory: a government project to promote unfettered investment.
A favored project of current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, ZEDEs (the Spanish acronym for Economic Development and Employment Zones) are special regions created as enclaves for corporate investors, with their own low tax schemes, legal systems, labor and environmental rules, and security forces. Both the Honduran government and foreign promoters of the ZEDEs (billionaire Peter Thiel is one of them) argue they will spur economic development and create employment in a country where over half the population lives below the poverty line.
But opponents say the ZEDE law allows the special zones to operate as sovereign countries, beyond Honduran jurisdiction. The independent National Anticorruption Council argues that the law is unconstitutional and could result in turning over large parts of national territory to foreign investors. It recently asked the congress to overturn the law.
The ZEDEs’ tax benefits will widen Honduras’ already vast income inequality and the promise of thousands of new jobs is exaggerated, according to the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development in Honduras.
Critics say the areas eyed for ZEDE construction in the Garifuna region are ancestral lands and home to tens of thousands of Garifunas in villages they’ve inhabited for generations.
The Garifuna, for their part, argue that the ZEDEs will begin a process that will expel them from their lands as investors move in. They point to an area in Puerto de Satuye, east of the port of La Ceiba, that the government ceded in March to Honduras Próspera, a U.S.-based company that set up the first ZEDE on Roatán Island last year. The 387 acres in the Garifuna region is to become “La Ceiba Business and Industrial Park,” according to government documents. Erick Brimen, director of Honduras Próspera, said in an October interview with the Financial Times that he planned to create an industrial park on the Caribbean coast.
In a written statement to VICE World News, Timothy Gilles, a spokesman for Honduras Próspera, wrote that the new project would create “an environment that attracts highly motivated investors and entrepreneurs, diversifies the Honduran economy, [and] promotes the use of domestic raw materials.”
Honduras Próspera is committed to protecting human rights, the statement said, adding that nobody was expelled from the Satuye site. Gilles also pointed to a resolution the company took last year promising not to expropriate land outside its boundaries (without clarifying where those boundaries are).
“ZEDEs are actually a godsend to Indigenous people,” Brimen said in an interview last year.
Residents of La Ceiba argue that they were not consulted before the Puerto de Satuye ZEDE was approved. Jerry Sabio, La Ceiba’s mayor and a member of the Garifuna, told local media he hadn’t been consulted and he has opposed the project. Próspera says the public was informed through newspaper and radio ads and that “additional consultations were not required by law because the Satuye property was and is privately-owned property.”
The company also said it had undertaken community outreach, including school improvement, reforestation efforts, and the production of a video highlighting Garifuna culture.
The Garifuna argue that behind the ongoing violence they face are Honduran politicians who support large projects on their land—and ZEDEs are the most recent incursion.
“I say this with all possible clarity,” said Yiovanny Guevara, a member of OFRANEH in La Ceiba. The ZEDEs’ supporters “use intimidation. They’ve been doing this for years, trying to make sure the Garifuna people live in fear, leave their homes, and emigrate.”
The local opposition to the ZEDEs extends beyond the Garifuna community. “What they want to do is implant one country within this country,” said Rodolfo Martínez Cruz, a protester in La Ceiba. “They want their own laws so they don’t have to pay taxes, [so] they’ll have all their benefits to themselves. It’s unconstitutional. It’s illegal.”
The Honduran Supreme Court once agreed, having deemed the ZEDEs unconstitutional in 2011. But after congress, where Hernández was then the president, replaced four of the five Supreme Court magistrates, the new court quickly reversed the ruling. Congress then approved the economic zones in 2013.
Anthropologist Beth Geglia, a doctoral candidate at American University who did field research in Honduras on the early stage of ZEDE development, argues that the ZEDE companies take advantage of the same dysfunction they say they’ll fix.
A coup in 2009 led to rising political violence and entrenched drug trafficking networks. That created a crisis of legitimacy for the Honduran government, she said. “ZEDE proponents have drawn on the ‘failed state’ narrative as a justification for their projects—while failing to recognize how that very environment made the ZEDEs possible.”
Geglia emphasized that ZEDE investors stand to benefit from the violent concentration of land into the hands of wealthy elites that’s already commonplace in Honduras. Once the ZEDE is established, rising land prices can lead to new violence aimed at displacing local communities.
In response, Gilles said the accusation that ZEDEs benefit from existing violence “is abhorrent, violative of everything that Próspera stands for, and has no purpose other than to foment discord and violence.”
Establishing the exact circumstances behind the disappearance of Sneider and the four other Garifuna men is all but impossible: Like most crimes in Honduras, their case hasn’t received a thorough investigation.
“There hasn't been a single moment when [the government] had a single interest in figuring out what happened with the disappearance of those boys,” said Herrera, of OFRANEH.
The Garifuna have created their own independent truth commission to investigate, composed of local community members and international legal experts. It will examine killings and disappearances going back to 2017, said one of its members, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Members of the body, called Sunla, said they’ve faced threats and declined to give details about their investigation.
The killings of Garifunas have continued since Sneider and the four other men were kidnapped last July.
Martin Pandy, one Garifuna leader in Corozal, was shot to death by presumed gang members in front of his family's convenience store on March 2 this year, likely a victim of revenge for a cycle of violence between local Rasta men and gang leaders, according to a member of Sunla.
But Pandy also had a long history of helping villagers organize against industrialization projects that many residents felt would harm the environment. His absence, the member of Sunla said, has left a chill in the community.
Public demonstrations against the feared enclosure of Garifuna lands for ZEDEs, meanwhile, have continued.
On a sweltering morning at the end of May, several hundred people blocked rush-hour traffic in La Ceiba to protest the ZEDEs, beginning with the one approved for Puerto de Satuye.
A Garifuna woman leading a line of traditional drummers swung burning incense, sending a scrim of smoke over the protesters as they marched down a palm-lined promenade toward the center of La Ceiba.
“Migration is a consequence of this violence. We’re really worried that we’re going to be displaced from our livelihoods,” said Suany Guity, a young Garifuna woman protesting that day.
“We don’t want to move—so we’re incredibly fearful that we’ll be thrown out by the ZEDEs.”