A prominent human rights lawyer who represented several peasant groups in land disputes in Honduras has been killed by an unidentified gunman, according to one of the groups.
The Peasants Movement of the Valley of Bajo Aguan reported that Antonio Trejo Cabrera, 41, was shot five times Sunday while attending a wedding in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, the Associated Press reported. The gunman remains at large.
Trejo had represented the Peasants Movement along with two other land rights groups in disputes with landowners in the Bajo Aguan region, where more than 60 people, the majority of them landless farmers, have been killed since December 2009 and dozens more beaten or threatened with violence by private security forces for occupying and demanding redistribution of farmland that has been consolidated into the hands of a few wealthy individuals and businesses.
Trejo had helped many subsistence farmers obtain legal rights to private land in Bajo Aguan, which they claimed should be public land where they have the right to grow food under Honduran law.
Most of the land in the fertile Bajo Aguan region is being used to produce palm oil, which is then used to produce biofuel for vehicles.
Trejo had also prepared legal arguments against government plans to build privately run charter cities with laws and institutions separate from the Honduran constitution. Hours before his death, he had participated in a televised debate where he accused politicians of skimming funding for the projects for their own political campaigns.
Vitalino Alvarez, a spokesman for Bajo Aguan’s peasants, told the Associated Press that Trejo “had denounced those responsible for his future death on many occasions. Since they couldn’t beat him in the courts, they killed him.”
Tensions between peasants and landowners in the Bajo Aguan region have flared up with the deployment of the military under the administration of conservative President Porfirio Lobo, who took office in 2010 following disputed elections and a military coup that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.
Zelaya, a member of left-wing Liberal Party who took office in 2006, had been sympathetic to landless farmers and supported measures to grant them legal rights to privately owned land.
President Lobo signed an accord in June for the government to purchase 10,000 acres of land in the Bajo Aguan region, to be sold to farmers already occupying the land through a $16 million loan, though it has yet to be implemented. Peasant groups have been demanding legal rights to 25,000 acres of land.
Since Lobo took office, peasants have engaged in multiple occupations of privately owned land, which is typically met with violence by private security forces, though some security personnel themselves have subsequently been the target of violent attacks by some peasants.
According to the AP, 48 farmers, 10 private security personnel and two national police officers were killed between December 2009 and June 2012.
Human rights groups have criticized the Honduran government’s failure to prosecute those responsible in the land dispute-related killings.
“Honduras is party to several international treaties, including the American Convention on Human Rights,” read a statement from Human Rights Watch. “These treaties obligate countries to deter and prevent rights violations, investigate and prosecute offenders and provide remedies to victims.”