SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras
12 p.m., July 8, 2016. San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Interview with Father Cesar Espinoza, a friend of Berta Cáceres. He has received death threats for his anti-mining stance.
“You don’t look like a man under threat.”
“How should such a man look?”
I don’t answer. I have no idea. I only have my imagination and movie images to go by. Jumpy, nervous, I suppose.
“You’re calm,” I say finally. “Very calm.”
“What would you have me be?”
Again, I don’t answer. Espinoza wipes his forehead with a bottle of water. He uncaps it, takes a sip and sighs.
Nightmares, Espinoza says, plague his sleep. He wakes up sweating. He has not sought therapy. That is a luxury he cannot afford. For a while, he broke down in tears in the middle of mass. He had backaches and headaches. That may be from age.
“Do I go about my life shaking in my boots? No, but if I’m driving and a car comes too close I am scared.”
“I was kidnapped.”
“July 4, 2014.”
He motions at a bottle of water he had given me.
“Please,” he says.
I twist off the cap. We sit on the second-floor deck of the rectory in downtown San Pedro Sula. It rained earlier. Gray clouds layer the sky and the warped boards of the wood deck hold the damp. A clingy humidity enwraps us.
I am in Honduras for National Catholic Reporter to write about environmental activists opposed to mining. From San Pedro Sula here in the north, I will travel south visiting towns along the way affected by mining until I reach Choluteca in the south near the border with El Salvador.
The divide separating pro- and anti-mining factions assumed lethal proportions two months before I left the United States, when gunmen murdered the renowned Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March 2016. Just one year earlier, she had won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for preventing a hydroelectric dam from being built in western Honduras on the Gualcarque River. The river is sacred to indigenous people who depend on it for their livelihood.
A team of five international lawyers has found that a plot against Cáceres was months in the making and involved senior executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, known as Desa, the Honduran company holding the dam concession.
Desa has denied any involvement in Cáceres’ death. Eight suspects now in custody include Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the social and environment manager for the company, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired Honduran Army lieutenant who was Desa’s director of security until mid-2015.
I was not familiar with Cáceres’ work before her death. Photos of her show a stocky woman with dark hair. She looks very determined in some pictures. In others, her smile wreaths her face with laughter.
On the day of her murder, at least four assassins entered the gated community where she lived on the outskirts of La Esperanza in southwest Honduras. A checkpoint at the entrance to the town—normally manned by police officers or soldiers—was unattended on the night she was killed. Her death was seen by many activists as a warning that environmental protests would be dealt with one way and one way only.
A fixer I’d worked with in Guatemala told me all of Central America mourned Cáceres. “She was our Martin Luther King,” the fixer told me, “our Cesar Chavez.”
The fixer arranged my Honduras travel schedule and sent me emails detailing my itinerary: You will drive directly from the San Pedro Sula airport to meet Father Cesar at a priest’s residence. He will be in town for a conference.
Now, as I sit across from Espinoza, I try to square his kidnapping story with the calm way he tells it.
“I was invited to a party at the U.S. Embassy,” Espinoza says. “I went to the party to do some lobbying among ambassadors and people from international organizations about mining. That’s the only reason I went. I don’t like parties. I was by myself and on my way back home. I picked up a human rights advocate and a friend, another priest. We were coming from Tegucigalpa to San Pedro Sula when the kidnappers stopped us with their car. I thought they were drunk people. They were five men with assault weapons. At first, I assumed we were being robbed. They took over our car. Two of them sat in front. I was in back. ‘Be quiet, don’t say anything,’ the two men said. Another car followed us. There was a police car in front of us, too. It did nothing. I was thinking of my life. Indeed, life does flash in front of you. I thought, ‘Where are they going to take us to kill us?’ So many things ran through my mind. I can’t pinpoint out any one emotion. I thought, ‘This is a terrible way to end my life.’ I told them, ‘I am a priest. I work with the church.’ I was trying to reason with them.”
Father Cesar takes another sip of water. He is a large, muscular man with a potbelly and a helmet of black hair. I notice the pockmarks on his face and recall my tortured teenage fight against acne. How strange, I think, the memories that cross my mind in places so unrelated to my life. How neither Espinoza nor I, as teenagers, could have imagined we’d be facing one another, an anti-mining activist priest confronting death threats and a reporter who grew up in a wealthy Chicago suburb where we locked our doors at night out of habit, not fear.
“For two hours the kidnappers held us. When they let us go, they left us in the town of Esperanza in a sleazy motel. The kind used by prostitutes. The hotel was near where Berta was killed. The location was not by chance. It was a message to us, I think. They took our money and cell phones. They took our car and luggage. ‘OK,’ one of them said. ‘You’ve been warned. You can get a restraining order. It won’t help you. This is how we do things in Honduras.’”
Espinoza stops talking. What do you think? the expression on his face asks. I don’t know. How do I find parallels with my life to an experience unlike anything I’ve known? I say nothing, jot down notes and avoid his look by staring over his shoulders at laundry lines extending between houses. Rusted tin siding separates each house. Shards of glass point the tops of concrete walls to deter intruders. Traffic hums somewhere beyond the palm tree-lined road.
“The kidnappers got away with it,” he says. “They’ve not been caught. To this day, I ask myself, ‘Why wasn’t I killed? If they could kill Berta, what stopped them from killing me, a priest from a small parish?’ When activists were killed, Berta would say, ‘Who will be next?’ I never thought she would be the one.”
He pauses, then reflects on his childhood and the choices he made long ago that led him to the priesthood and to the night of the kidnapping. He grew up in San Isidro, Intibucá, a small village far from San Pedro Sula. He played on the street. He’d meet friends in other barrios. Nothing bad would happen. Maybe he was careless then. Maybe he is too aware of his mortality now. He does not think so. He thinks Honduras has changed. Even a poor priest is not safe.
“Did you always want to be a priest?”
“No, a cowboy.”
Espinoza laughs. When he outgrew his fantasies of the cowboy life, he decided to become a physician. As a child, he had seen people die of the most basic diseases because they could not afford a doctor. He wanted to help them. He had a competing interest, however. He had always been drawn to the church from his first catechism class. He enjoyed leaving his village to attend religious retreats. He saw priests helping poor people and decided to be a priest rather than a doctor. It was a practical decision. The priesthood required less schooling. And there was something appealing about reaching for something bigger than himself, a spiritual ideal larger than his own life. He took his vows in 2004.
Espinoza came to preach in the parish of Arizona, Honduras, three years later. In 2009, Lenir Perez, owner of the Honduran mining company Minerales Victoria, announced he wanted to buy 2,500 acres, covering 16 farming communities, near Arizona in the department of Atlántida. One town, Nueva Esperanza, became the focal point of confrontations between pro- and anti-mining factions. (I called Perez to ask about his mining operations, but he never got back to me.)
Perez offered a lot of money for land, Espinoza says, and many people took it. Those who did not were harassed. Farmers received threats. Men in trucks drove through fences tearing up crops. Perez bribed officials to revoke land titles. Espinoza spoke out against Perez from the pulpit and on the radio. In January 2013, he received his first death threat. A text message: Don’t come too close to the mine because we will get you with a machete.
The threat made an impression. Espinoza stopped traveling outside of Arizona. People called him, warning, “Goons are talking about you and saying you are about to be done in.”
Vicar Victor Camera, Espinoza’s supervisor, chastised Perez for creating strife and fear. Camera saw with his own eyes the machinery Perez brought into Nueva Esperanza after he said he would not bring in mining equipment without holding a community meeting first.
“Do you think being transparent is to sneak in machinery on a Saturday escorted by the police?” Camara wrote in an email Espinoza showed me. “Have you chosen force and conflict? I hope that you ponder the consequences and that above all no human lives be put at stake, since no human life is worth all the gold in the world. Please know that with conflict there will be no winners. Everybody will lose, including you.”
Perez responded that it saddened him to see Honduras “taken apart by businessmen, drug dealers, politicians and environmentalists (communists and subversive curas).” Curas is a derogatory term for priests. Perez also accused the church of cowardice for not having stopped Espinoza’s advocacy against the mine. He called Espinoza “another sinner behind his robe.”
“Believe me, I would like to open that mine hand in hand with the community,” Perez wrote, “but I will not allow a Guatemalan [Espinoza] and the activists to destroy this country.”
In July 2013, Orlane Vidal and Daniel Langmeier of the Accompaniment Project, a nongovernmental organization designed to dissuade attacks on activists in Honduras, came to Arizona to write a report on the mining operations. Vidal and Langmeier stayed with a family in Nueva Esperanza opposed to mining. Shortly after their arrival, they were held captive for two and a half hours by armed men, who, according to Amnesty International, worked for Perez.
The lead kidnapper told Vidal and Langmeier that they would be disappeared in the woods if they returned to the area. They were released at a bus stop in Nueva Florida, a town not far from Nueva Esperanza. They filed complaints with the authorities. The abductors were found but not charged.
The abduction, however, galvanized the community. Anti-mine activists met with local mayoral candidates and asked them to sign an anti-mining pledge. Honduran law allows mayors the final decision on whether a mine can or cannot operate in their township. On Aug. 20, 2014, upon taking office, the newly elected mayor of Nueva Esperanza, Mario Fuentes, shut down the mine. However, the closure may be temporary. Perez still owns the land. If a new mayor supports mining, the mine can be reopened.
Even if the mine remains shuttered, Espinoza worries that some damage will be irreversible. The waters have been poisoned. He knows of several cases where women have contracted skin diseases from washing clothes. Some people who worked in the mines have cancer and metal in their blood. When the mine was open, miners did not speak of these things. Those who said they were sick were fired. They lost their jobs anyway when the mine closed. Some of the unemployed blame Espinoza for the lack of work.
“Perez is accountable for these problems, not me,” Espinoza says. “Perez has different values than me. He is motivated by profit and power.”
6 p.m., July 8, 2016. Telephone interview with Rodolfo Artega, 54, who lives in Palos Ralos in Valle de Siria. It is far from where you’ll be in San Pedro Sula. A mine called San Martin operated in the district of Valle de Siria not far from Arizona. Artega lives in the district. The mine, owned by Glamis Gold Ltd., a Reno, Nevada-based gold producer, started production in 2000. In 2006, Goldcorp, a Canadian gold producer, acquired it. Goldcorp operated the mine through its subsidiary Entre Mares during the last three years of production. In 2008, a year before San Martin closed, a report on the mine by the University of Glasgow found a number of serious problems with it: cyanide leakage from one of the main storage ponds where cattle graze and where waters flow to local rivers; signs of substantial physical erosion of one of the principal mine waste management facilities; a flow of acidic water exiting the mine perimeter and entering a nearby river; and exposed pit walls which would remain sources of wind-blown dust and contaminated runoff for decades or even centuries to come. On Oct. 16, 2007, Luis Vidal Ramos Reina, director of forensic medicine at the Criminal and Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Tegucigalpa, released to the government a forensic report on the analysis of blood and urine samples of 61 people in Valle de Siria. The analysis indicated the presence of high concentrations of cyanide, mercury, lead and arsenic. Furthermore, the report concluded that concentrations of lead exceeded the World Health Organization’s acceptable levels by 10 milligrams.
I have a difficult time hearing Rodolfo Artega over the phone. Rural areas have poor reception, he tells me. He shouts, his hoarse voice cracking. He recalls when a mine company came to his small town of San Jose in Valle de Siria. At first, the mine’s representatives said they would be taking soil samples. They mentioned exploration and extraction, but the words meant nothing to Artega and his neighbors. They were farmers, not miners. They had no idea what to expect.
Then in 2000, men representing the mine told the people of San Jose they would have to move to a new town about three miles away. Houses had been built for them. In addition, the company would pay each family $3,000. The company had plans to raze San Jose for mining.
Artega refused to move. San Jose had been founded in 1880. Artega and his wife lived on land that had belonged to his great-great grandfather. He would not be forced out.
All of his neighbors left, but Artega hung on for 25 days. San Jose became a ghost town, the vacant streets and closed stores silent witness to the evacuation. Only in his imagination did Artega hear the bustle of life he’d always known. Mine representatives told him that if he did not leave, a court would issue an order to remove him by force. He would not receive payment for his land. The pressure was too much. Artega gave in to their demands.
“You cannot begin to know how hard it is to abandon your life, your house, everything you know and that is familiar to you,” he tells me. “I got sick. My disease was not of the flesh but of solitude brought on by sadness.”
During the years following the relocation, Artega and his neighbors noticed problems. People got sick from the water. Diarrhea, urine infections. Young women had frequent miscarriages.
People are still sick today with thyroid problems and cancer, Artega says. He feels bad for his friends. Like Olga Velasquez. She has five children. All of them came down with skin diseases. They never had this problem before. Her eldest son was an activist. He received death threats. He would go out with friends and the police would stop him. “Oh, you’re the son of Olga Velasquez. We’d hate to see something happen to your mother.” It got to a point that her son decided to leave Honduras. He crossed illegally into the U.S. He was just 16. The border patrol caught him and sent him to a detention center. Before he left, he had told his mother: “You need to stop your activism. Your children are being harassed.”
Artega tries not to dwell too much on problems. When he is by himself, he takes comfort in his memories of the fruit trees and sugarcane fields of San Jose. He remembers the small ponds and the cows that grazed nearby.
In those days, he would awaken at dawn, wash his face and hands. His wife served him a hot cup of coffee. He would fetch the cows and milk them. He did not have many, but he had the best. Then he would hitch up his oxen and till the soil and plant corn and beans. That was his entire day. During the rainy season, the crops grew. He felt happy and content.
He and his wife married in 1985. Their first children were twins, but one died at 4 months. Four more children followed. On weekends, the family went into town and visited family. It was a happy, peaceful life.
They lived in an adobe house with a white ceiling and a wood-shingle roof. The house had a clear view of a green valley full of trees. Artega could see two hills from his front door. One is now flattened from mining. From his new house, he can still see the remaining hill.
Everything is so different now. The landscape is unrecognizable. A warehouse once filled with the mine company’s dynamite stands where his house once stood. He thought maybe one day he would return to San Jose and rebuild his home. Then Berta died and he lost all hope. He did not know her personally. She stood up for people like him. Now, who is left standing?
Artega feels unmoored. His foundation had been San Jose. It now feels as if nothing belongs to him. His new house is made of cinder block and has a pre-fab roof. The bare, concrete floor feels cold against his feet. He owns about half the land he once had.
Artega has no one in his life but his wife and children. He has been feuding with his brother, Sergio. Sergio sold his land to the mine company. He was happy to do so. “You gave away your heritage,” Artega told him. Not long ago, Artega felt their feud had gone on long enough. He called Sergio, but Sergio did not receive him well. He didn’t want to talk. He continues to defend the mine company. Artega does not want to argue. He only wants his life back.
10 a.m., July 10, 2016. Interview Pedro Landa in the town of El Progreso. He has a very important radio show. He is one of the most respected environmental activists in Honduras. He worked closely with Cáceres. He lives in El Progreso, a 45-minute drive from San Pedro Sula.
On my way out of San Pedro Sula to El Progreso, the cab driver asks me why I’m in Honduras. I tell him I’m here reporting.
“Have you been in Honduras before?”
“No. I’ve worked in Guatemala but never here.”
“Good country, Guatemala,” he says. “At least Guatemala has a president in jail. Here we can’t even do that. Honduras is very dangerous. The first entity to support the government is the entity behind all of these big mineral companies. The government supports them and not us. We are a most painful country. We are used to people getting killed for no reason for defending their rights. This is not normal.”
I listen to the driver and stare out my window at faded billboards promoting Pepsi and a hotel, The El Rez Inn, and motor oil brands. Ten minutes later, we leave the freeway for a narrow, two-lane road. Laborers wait for buses beneath billboards for Tampico orange juice and Unogas. Corn and sugarcane fields and street markets replace billboards, and white sheets billow on laundry lines like flags. Men in straw hats spray fields with water, and buzzards circle above hills pocked with shacks. Families stare at the traffic passing them by.
We stop at a checkpoint and show our identification. An old man stands on the side of the road with a sign: I am blind. Help me out. Shade from coconut trees and a Chevron Oil billboard stripes his face, his eyes clouded a chalky white.
Pedro Landa works in an office beside a dusty road not far from the checkpoint. The cab driver leaves me at the gate. Stray dogs pebbled with ticks lie panting beneath trees. A guard checks my passport. I walk through the gate and cross a rock-strewn lot to the door of a two-story glass building. Landa waits for me on the second floor. We shake hands and he motions for me to sit at a table. He folds his hands, hunches forward. His lined face settles into a pout. Heavy circles hammock his eyes. A banner above a shelf behind him reads: In Honduras we join the pact of dreamers in the movement.
“How long have you been an activist?”
“Twenty-five years,” Landa answers.
The destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 motivated him to get political. The storm created landslides because mountains had been stripped of trees for the use of private companies seeking mineral deposits. Honduras suffered considerable loss of life. A few men made a lot of money at the expense of poor farmers and their families.
I mention my meeting with Father Cesar Espinoza. Landa remembers when he was kidnapped. These days in Nueva Esperanza things are much calmer, but the calm is a tense one, he says. No one knows what Lenir Perez might do next.
“I myself have received every kind of threat,” Landa says. “Over the phone, in text messages and face-to-face.”
He counts off on his fingers:
2008: Mine companies brought workers armed with machetes and guns to a meeting in which he was a participant about the need to limit mining licenses. Police prevented a confrontation.
2010: Landa traveled to Canada to testify before parliament about the environmental consequences of mine companies like Goldcorp operating in Honduras. After he finished speaking, Pedro received a text. We know what you are saying in Canada. You are about to suffer consequences.
2013: Someone shot into his car after he left a meeting. He fled to Costa Rica for two months to collect himself and think about what he should do. He does not fear for his life as much as he worries about his family. The most difficult thing is when his 78-year-old mother asks him to stop being an activist. He has spoken to his family about retiring, but they agree that he cannot.
“They have reached same conclusion as I have. We can’t betray this moment in our country any more than Berta could.”
Landa counted himself as one of Cáceres’ closest friends. They met in 1996 at a gathering of environmental activists. Despite all the pressure and her anxiety for her safety, Cáceres always had a smile. She wore jeans and boots. She treated people traveling with her like a mother would her children. No matter what, she always made time for people to eat. She called her friends compas and compitas, her pals.
A friend called at 4 a.m. to tell Landa she was murdered. Her death was a declaration of war, Landa says. We are coming. We are coming for all of you.
When I complete my interview, Landa leads me downstairs to rear room where two young men sit. They lean over a table studying a map of Honduras marked with red triangles of areas they worry might be opened for mining. They introduce themselves:
Osman Orellana is 26 and a naturopathic physician. In his home, he has a portrait of Cáceres with candles burning around it day and night. He worked with Espinoza in Arizona. He saw how the land suffered from mining. Entire forests destroyed. Sediment-plugged streams. People developed allergies and rashes from polluted water. Orellana treated them with herbs.
His cousin had joined with Espinoza before him but left after he received death threats. Then in 2013, Orellana received threats. “I will kill you,” a man said over the phone, and hung up. Mine workers sent him text messages: You better get lost or else. Men would follow him onto buses. Sometimes, they watched him from a car.
He was not the only one under surveillance. Goons showed up at schools with guns threatening parents who opposed the Nueva Esperanza mine as they dropped off their children. Two schools shut down. Three families left. Orellana left for Costa Rica. He returned only when he stopped receiving threatening text messages.
Carlos Leonel is 30 and works with an organization opposed to an iron mine in Valle del Oguán in the northern district of Colón. Perez owns the mine. Leonel and other opponents say the mine will destroy the many rivers in the area.
Opponents have come under threat. One woman received a text message: We will cut your tongue out. She left town for four weeks. Three other activists were also threatened: You will end up like Berta Cáceres.
Representatives of the mine company attended a community meeting. They handed armed men packages. Leonel believes the package contained money, payment to get rid of opponents. He doesn’t know, can’t prove it. He has a family and three children. If he is killed, their lives will be difficult. He worries about this. He trusts no one.
3 p.m., July 11, 2016. Visit sisters Presentación Aguilar and Maria de Rosario Soriono with the order Messengers of the Immaculate in Arizona. They worked with Espinoza and were active in efforts to close the Nueva Esperanza mine. After meeting the sisters, you have a telephone interview with Deputy Mayor Cesar Alvaranga of Nueva Esperanza.
The drive from El Progreso to Arizona takes me past palm oil plantations. I see row after row of palm trees offering shade to road crews and cows nudging at the lean grass beneath a billboards promoting Mobile oil (Better Protection For Your Car) and Uno Petrol Plaza (Lubricants sale!). Recyclers rest against the posts of the billboards, sacks filled with discarded plastic. In fields beyond the palm trees, laborers rebuild a wall near a house with a collapsed roof. A family sits beside an empty swimming pool looking out at the road. Hunched over against the sun, no wind, low gray skies. Pickups with one and two cows pass my car spewing gravel on the small shrines set by the roadside for people killed in accidents. Isolated graves wreathed in plastic flowers, chickens pecking at the pavement, vacant soccer fields. Road crews then nothing. In the emptiness another billboard divided in half. Drink Coca-Cola, on one side, Buy Puma Gas, on the other.
The cab driver leaves me at Our Lady of Pilar in Arizona, Espinoza’s church. I follow a hall into a room where a young woman sits. Behind her hangs a portrait of Cáceres. I ask for sisters Presentación and Maria. The woman tells me her name, Olga Hernandez. She volunteers at the church. The sisters are on their way, she tells me and offers me a chair. I explain the purpose of my trip.
“I was an activist against the Nueva Esperanza mine,” she says.
I take out my notepad.
“For the land,” she says. “I saw the mine destroy the land piece by piece.”
Hernandez has lived in Nueva Esperanza for all of her 29 years. She was just a child when Perez came to town. He wanted land near water sources. Many rivers run in the hills of Nueva Esperanza and all of Arizona. The people told Perez, “This has been our land for centuries.”
Perez’s company hired young men and paid them $25 an hour, an amount that would have taken them one week to earn working in the fields. They bought the people of this town, Hernandez says. Everyone in her family opposed the mine. But her cousins and uncles and aunts argued with one another. Some of them wanted to sell their land to Perez; others did not.
Hernandez knew a woman with five sons. She and three of her sons opposed the mine. The other two sons worked in it. One day, the mother stood outside the mine with the three sons who opposed it along with other protesters and demonstrated while her two other sons held machetes and stood with employees.
Divisions developed in other families. Perez wanted the land of Hernandez’s neighbor, Marcos Amaga, for an access road. Amaga refused to sell. He was elderly and appointed his son as heir. He made him promise not to sell. When Amaga died, the son sold the land to Perez. He fought with his sister and mother. He made money and left town.
For more than a year, people who opposed the mine were afraid to go out at night. Mine security patrolled the street. They hurt no one. It was a psychological thing. Don’t resist the mine or else.
During this time, Hernandez’s cousin, a mine supporter, threatened her. “Watch out, Olga,” he said. “You will end up chopped up into little pieces.”
Her cousin later changed his mind when the mine laid him off. He apologized. It is all forgotten, Hernandez told him.
The rest of the town, however, has not forgotten. Life is not what it used to be. The mine is closed, but the people who supported it remain angry at the people who opposed it. They say, “Oh, wait, when the mine reopens things will change.”
Hernandez looks out at the land and remembers how it once was. The mine company extracted from mountains and flattened them. She can see trees and plants flourishing again but the mountains will never grow back.
Nueva Esperanza had been a safe place, Hernandez says. As a child, she would play in the woods with a friend, especially when the moon was shining. There were parties on weekends. Everyone attended. Neighbors shared what they had. Hernandez doesn’t see that now. Today, relationships depend on politics. You have relationships with people who agree with you and not with those who don’t.
Aguilar and Soriono walk into the office as Hernandez finishes talking. She greets them and leaves. The sisters face me, sitting side by side. They wear their hair in a bun and have on white blouses and long, navy blue dresses. They look tense. I don’t make them uncomfortable, Aguilar says. The subject of the Nueva Esperanza mine, however, does. Those were difficult days.
Even before Perez came to town, Aguilar and Soriono had been dealing with problems in Nueva Esperanza and the 17 towns that make up the county of Arizona. Gangs, for instance. In the town of Nueva Florida, not far from Nueva Esperanza, gangs extorted eight families for hundreds of dollars. The sisters tried to negotiate with the gangs, but in the end the families left and the gangs took over their homes.
Perez was just one more problem. Both sisters told the community, “Don’t be naive. Don’t believe everything they offer. Keep in mind the cost of acceptance, they urged. Nothing is free. Every gift has a cost.”
The mine offered jobs to some people and not to others, a dirty strategy to divide the community, Soriono says. Money can make people talk. It can also make them complacent and shut them up. One community leader got a job with the mine and became very supportive of Perez. This person bullied people. He stole from street vendors. He got cocky and believed the mine would back him up. “If I’m sent to jail, I’ll be out the same day,” he boasted. He beat up one man very badly and was arrested. The mine would have nothing to do with him. He’s still in jail.
The sisters organized meetings in local parishes. They interspersed Biblical text in their talks. They spoke about Creation and how man was called upon to protect nature, not destroy it. Perez never confronted the sisters directly. Community meetings, however, were tense. Armed security personnel from the mine attended. They fired their guns in the air outside.
Of course they were afraid, Aguilar says. It was not physical terror. It was a mental terror. Giving talks with armed men watching made her feel under siege. She found solace in her faith and in Cáceres. Look at all Berta puts herself through for the people, Aguilar thought.
Then Espinoza received his death threat. Aguilar and Soriono were included in the same message. You and those nuns better not show your faces in this town again. The sisters didn’t step outside the church for weeks.
“I was very curious as to who would send such a message,” Soriono says. “I didn’t think anyone in the congregation would do this. I paid attention, looked for a single gesture that might indicate who did this. Nothing gave them away.”
“We were so afraid,” Aguilar says. “We called our mother superior. ‘Should we stay?’ we asked. She said, ‘Look in your heart and make a decision.’”
They stayed. It was not easy. Even the church was divided. At one meeting, Aguilar read a paper about the dangers of mining. A church congregant interrupted her.
“Shut up,” he said. “Stop speaking this nonsense. These lies. It’s all bullshit.” She kept speaking until she had nothing more to say. “You lie,” the man said. “This is not true.”
The sisters could feel the anger, the uproar in the entire community. Hatred. Like a devil possessing people and robbing them of all reason. Even today. Even in church. Some families no longer attend mass. Those that do sit in pews only with people who think like they do.
The sisters walk me to the street where I catch a cab back to El Progreso. After dinner, I call Cesar Alvaranga, deputy mayor of Nueva Esperanza. He grew up nearby and has known the valleys and hills and rivers and the singing birds of the town his entire life. There were only dirt roads in town when he was a child and in some places not even that. The clear air did not have even a speck of pollution because there were not many cars. That has changed, of course, but some things remain as they were when he was a boy. Even today, few towns have bridges. People cross rivers leaping from one rock to the next. In the rainy season, the rivers become so full, people wait days to cross them. This is the life people have known for generations. When the mine came, people were confused, Alvaranga says. They had lived here for generations without any kind of disruption.
The most dangerous year was 2013, a year filled with dramatic events, Alvaranga continues. He remembers Perez speaking to him and other anti-mining activists and trying to seduce them with job offers. Perez got some leaders on his side. “I’m not trying buy you,” Perez told Alvaranga, “but you can ask me for whatever you want and I’ll give it to you.” Alvaranga didn’t fall for it.
On Aug. 16, 2013, Alvaranga and another activist received death threats. Alvaranga was at work. He ran a minibus company. The threat scared him, but he continued his opposition to the mine and took precautions. He moved out of his house for nine months and stayed with friends. His wife told him to abandon the fight. Farming comes first, she said. We can’t live like this. He told her, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine,” but she had had enough. “I can’t live in fear,” she said. She moved out and took their five children with her.
Alvaranga still feels threatened. Six months ago a car with tinted windows followed him. He was very afraid. It is difficult to live with fear because he knows these people are powerful. They have money. They have the support of the government. They invested millions and don’t want to lose it.
He misses his wife and children. He misses the peaceful times. He misses the beautiful landscape. The land was ideal for cattle and crops. It was a source of life for the entire population. It remains a source of life for Alvaranga but only in his memories.
8 a.m. July 12, 2016. Take a bus from El Progreso to the town of Choluteca (takes a little more than six hours) not far from Nacaome, where you will meet Pedro Landa’s sister, Miriam Landa, a nun with the order of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. She raises awareness about mining in Nacaome and the nearby town of El Transito.
I arrive in Choluteca midmorning. The wide streets with minimal traffic stand in contrast to the congestion of El Progreso and San Pedro Sula. A Pizza Hut takes up most of a small shopping mall across the street from my hotel.
The next day, Sister Miriam asks to reschedule our meeting for the following afternoon. She suggests I see the mines in the mountains outside Choluteca near the town of Corpus Christi. These mines are privately owned, she says. They are leased to miners for $500 a month. Eight men died in the mine when it collapsed in 2014.
I rent a car and follow the highway out of Choluteca and soon merge onto a dirt road flanked on either side by tall trees and deep woods. It’s still early and the heat already feels as if it has reached into the 90s, but the trees provide some shade and a breeze blows off a river (runoff from a mine, I am told) where men pan for gold. The road wends its way past the river and into the mountains and the air cools.
It takes me about an hour to reach Corpus Christi. The car rattles on the town’s cobblestone streets. Small storefronts stand with their doors open. I park across from a church, Nuestra Señora de la Purificación, Our Lady of Purification. Large cracks riffle through the white, stucco walls, and yellow tape wraps around the church as if it were part of a crime scene. A man sits on a bench reading a Bible. I ask him about the tape. He introduces himself: Mario Sanchez, the church pastor. He will answer my question, he says, but first he wants to show me inside.
The church was built in 1555, Sanchez says as we duck under the tape and enter. Tiles popped off the floor lay strewn about. Wide cracks unsettle faded paintings of the crucifixion. Over the years, Sanchez says, miners tunneled beneath the church looking for gold, ruining the foundation. Now, the church is too unstable for Sanchez to hold mass.
Sanchez opposes mining but not the miners’ desire to earn a living. In one day, they can earn $42—much more than they would earn harvesting sugar and fruit. Tourism would help create alternative work, but who, he wonders, will come to a town without paved roads?
He does not talk about mining in his sermons. Look what happened to Berta. He is a priest in a town without roads. He feels so insignificant that he doubts anyone would bother to kill him. Still, he sees no harm living a cautious life. The parishioners know how he feels. He did speak out when the eight miners died in 2014. The attorney general for human rights in Honduras came to Corpus Christi but did nothing. The mines bring in money. Human rights, Sanchez says, are a distant third after money and power.
I thank Sanchez for his time and drive out of Corpus Christi. At a curve in the road, I see a man working in a mill. The mill or rastras, a slang term used for the truck engines that operate the machinery, separate the gold from soil and rock through the use of mercury. The process takes hours and uses hundreds of gallons of water. Mill operators release the mercury-contaminated water back into the environment, where it mixes with organic matter and transforms into another toxic substance, methylmercury.
“What I do, I flush water into sacks full of sand so they absorb the mercury, and then I take the bags to a treatment plant,” the rastra operator, Domingo Barahona, tells me. “I suppose water leaks through the sacks and into the ground. I can’t help that.”
I watch mill water flow into a narrow channel closed off with sandbags. The water spills over the sodden bags into a stream.
“I am not worried about the mercury,” the rastra operator says. “Well, sometimes I do worry about it, but it’s all fine.”
Three men walking up the road watch Barahona speaking with me. They wear T-shirts and jeans and sneakers peppered with holes. Barahona waves them over.
“This one,” he says, pulling aside one of the men, “almost died with the other miners in 2014.”
The miner, Abraham Núñez, tells me he had begun work early that day. He stayed underground almost 24 hours before he came out for coffee. He was about to go back in when he heard a huge noise come from the mine. Had he been underground, nine men would have died, Núñez says.
“At first the earth was firm,” he tells me. “Now there are so many mines everything is hollowed out and fragile. Cave-ins happen all the time, but in our community there’s no other job but mining.”
The two other men with Núñez are his brother, Carlos, and a family friend, Mery Muñoz. They have worked in mines for nearly 10 years. They also toil in fields harvesting beans and corn. However, Honduras has just two seasons for crops, two seasons to earn money farming, whereas mining is year round.
“There are parts of a mine you can walk in standing up,” Núñez says. “You go farther in, you kneel, crawl and then get on your stomach. We just go in with our regular clothes. We have flashlights. We don’t have access to other basic equipment. We’re so deep in the mountain, our ears bleed. It is so deep we can’t hardly breathe. We take some picks and a small bag to use for what we extract. To get out, we crawl backward. There’s no space to turn around.”
“Several times I’ve been underground and felt a tremor or I felt a rock hit something nearby,” Muñoz says. “You’re down too deep to get out fast.”
“You hear crushing noises like walls caving,” Carlos adds. “It is a terrible noise. Keep in mind we may be in a tunnel and not find any gold. To gather enough gold to make money takes weeks. We are paid by the pound of what gold we bring out.”
Núñez looks at his watch. They have to leave, he says. Turning around, the three miners follow the road to a trail and disappear into some woods.
“Where are they headed?” I ask Barahona.
“To work a mine, of course,” he says.
I get back in my car and drive further up the road. I have not gone far when I approach a closed gate. Near the gate, a shopkeeper stands by his store in a grove of trees. A sign above the door: Bienvenidos a la pobreza. Welcome to poverty. The shopkeeper invites me inside and offers me a stool. I tell him I am looking for the mine that collapsed in 2014. He points at the gate. “There is the mine,” he says. “It is closed now, but people still try to sneak in to work it.”
“I was born in this area,” the shopkeeper continues. “Mining has always been here. We have no other source of work. Every morning miners go down into the mines. They don’t know if they will come back alive. However, they have families so they need the money. I’ve run this shop with my family over the years. Thank God I had the money to set up this business. Mining is too dangerous.”
“Why do you stay here if the mine is closed?”
“People like yourself always come by. Some are miners who want to see if it has reopened. Others just want to see where eight men died.”
The next morning, I meet with Sister Miriam. She has the same lined cheeks and weary smile as her brother, Pedro. We sit on a brick patio. Flowers decorate the edge of the patio, and a wide lawn spreads out before us bordered by trees.
Sister Miriam’s opposition to mining began in the 1990s, she says, when she was a young nun in Peru. She saw how engineers diverted rivers to support mines and how those rivers eventually dried up. She saw mountains flattened by dynamite and farmlands reduced to dust.
In 2013, Sister Miriam was transferred to Nacaome. She had heard about the mining in Nueva Esperanza from her brother Pedro and the fight of Espinoza and the nuns there. The death threats they received shocked her. She determined to support Espinoza without knowing that her activism would be needed in Nacaome.
Two years before Sister Miriam moved to Honduras, a wealthy woman in Tegucigalpa, Maria Gertrudis Valle, claimed that a mine that had been closed for decades in the nearby town of El Transito was on land that belonged to her. People would later tell Sister Miriam that Valle was like a ghost. No one saw her, only her representatives. When Sister Miriam came to Honduras, the El Transito mine was in full operation.
Dynamite explosions would rock El Transito. Maybe 60-70 explosions a day. Many of the mine tunnels went right beneath homes, ruining foundations. Children cried. Chickens and cows stopped eating.
Families protested and Sister Miriam joined them. The activists, she says, were very organized. Twenty people at a time blocked the road to the mine 24 hours a day. Other activists watched the road from the hills and from the steeple of a church. If miners tried to push through to the mine, an activist would ring the church bell bringing everyone from town to reinforce the blockade.
Some of the miners told the activists, “We’re here to inspect the trees.” Protesters told them, “Good idea. All of us will work with you.” The miners left.
One day, some miners did sneak in. The activists refused to let them leave. The police brought them water and food. After one week, the activists let them go.
Supporters of the mine tried to bribe protesters. “You can make money if you keep quiet,” they said. Other pro-mining people intimidated activists by chasing them in their cars.
Despite the threats, the opponents of the mine continued protesting. In 2014, heeding public pressure, Valle closed the mine.
The struggle, however, remains, Sister Miriam says. Miners sneak into the mine at night, especially during storms when they think thunder will conceal their use of dynamite.
These disturbances don’t bother Sister Miriam as much as the behavior of the mayor of Nacaome and the police. They’ve targeted her, she says. When she goes to them on church business, they say, “Oh, you were with those people who protested and rioted in El Transito. You are an instigator.” Sometimes, she thinks poverty is not just what you don’t have in your wallet, but what is missing from your heart. Compassion, understanding. She does not see these things in the mayor and the police.
She talks to her brother Pedro daily. He encourages her to stay strong. Some priests have told her they don’t like his advocacy. He can be very straightforward, she knows. He can be very blunt. Some people don’t respond well to that. She fears for his life. Look what happened to Berta. She met Cáceres once at a rally. She was very humble yet enthusiastic. Cheerful. She was bustling around laughing and smiling. And then she died.
Sister Miriam doesn’t worry about herself. Pedro’s life has more value, she says, because of his advocacy. She prays for him every day. If one of them must die for the work they do, she hopes the killers choose her.
8 a.m., July 16, 2016. Leave Honduras. Since Choluteca is near the El Salvador border, it is easier to take a bus from your hotel to San Salvador and catch a flight from there to the States.
As I wait for a bus to San Salvador, I check my phone for messages. I’ve been trying to reach Lenier Perez and Maria Gertrudis Valle for a comment. They have not responded. Then my phone rings. It’s Father Cesar Espinoza. He has been thinking of our time together. He does not want me to leave Honduras with the wrong impression.
“What would that be?”I ask.
“That I have hatred toward Lanier Perez or anyone else. I don’t.”
Outrage better describes his feelings, he says. Outrage at how Perez and others came into the community and poisoned the land and divided families. Outrage is very different from hate and anger, however, he says. Hate is personal. You hate individuals. Outrage is directed toward their actions. You act from outrage. You protest. Espinoza protests. The Landas protest. Aguilar and Soriono protest.
They will continue to protest just as Cáceres did, Espinoza says. He feels she still protests, her spirit inspiring them and giving them strength. She had the gift of words. She spoke with unusual clarity. She was very straightforward. She told Espinoza and other activists, “Let’s prepare ourselves because many of us will die. I don’t know who in here it will be, but one of us will be next.”