Tocoa, Honduras – The prisoners embraced their teary-eyed family members in the holding cell of a dilapidated, stifling hot Honduran courthouse. Six men arrested for their activism against a mining project in a national park had just been found guilty on multiple charges, and they reportedly faced up to 14 years in prison.
The ruling swiftly provoked international condemnation and outrage – but in a shocking twist, barely 24 hours later, the Honduran Supreme Court on Thursday ordered them free.
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Dozens gathered in central Tocoa on Thursday night to celebrate, accompanied by a caravan of pick-up trucks. People blared their horns, sang songs and gave speeches.
“It was a celebration, a happy moment for the whole community,” Leonel George told Al Jazeera. He lives in the village of Guapinol, which sits downstream from the open-pit mining project in Carlos Escaleras National Park. Many locals view the mine as a threat to the regional watershed.
According to defence lawyer Rodolfo Zamora, the Supreme Court’s order was based on an appeal filed many months earlier to challenge the constitutionality of the activists’ detention. The men were accused of criminal damage and illegally detaining the mining company’s security chief.
“We had put in a pair of requests for refuge almost two years ago,” Zamora told Al Jazeera. “The Supreme Court should have turned it in within a week. We knew that our request was still [pending] and they needed to give us an answer.”
The top court ultimately found the judge who initially ordered the men’s detention did not have the jurisdiction to do so, rendering void the case against them.
Jessenia Molina, a human rights worker for the San Alonso Rodriguez Foundation, which has organised for the liberation of the prisoners, said the last-minute reprieve came as a “wonderful” surprise, “We obviously didn’t expect this … This news has all of us happy, celebrating. Everyone left their houses to celebrate.”
It marks a momentous victory for environmentalists who have spent years trying to halt one of the most notorious mining projects in this Central American country.
Pattern of repression
The conflict over the iron oxide mine owned by Inversiones Los Pinares dates back to 2013, when a controversial zoning decision allowed for the facility to be built in the heart of Montana Botaderos, now known as Carlos Escaleras National Park.
The decision sparked fears the project could poison dozens of rivers, including the Guapinol – potentially threatening the livelihoods of thousands who depend on these rivers for agriculture and fishing.
In 2018, local activists blockaded the mining company’s access road. After a succession of confrontations between security guards and demonstrators, who remained in place for three months, military police moved in to disperse the protesters with tear gas and live ammunition. One civilian was killed and eight others injured.
Several other water defenders, mine workers and military police have been killed in communities surrounding the mine since the project began, although the circumstances of those deaths remain unclear.
Honduras is among the deadliest countries in the world for land and water defenders, a pattern of repression that intensified after a 2009 military coup. Xiomara Castro was elected president of Honduras last November on the promise of reversing the ensuing legacy of right-wing rule and corruption, promising the Guapinol political prisoners would be released.
Many hope Thursday’s ruling will herald substantive changes in the political landscape for environmentalists under the Castro administration – a weighty task in a country where a powerful economic elite are bent on land-grabbing and resource extraction.
Meanwhile, the Pinares mining complex is operational. The pelletising factory – a towering, multi-storey facility for processing iron oxide – looms over Guapinol and neighbouring villages, where residents report hearing the constant noise of heavy machinery and factory equipment at all hours, and say the Guapinol River has lost its clarity since the mining project began.
At the same time, the project “hasn’t [led to] any change here in development”, resident Raul Ramirez told Al Jazeera inside his palm-thatched hut.
Pinares, which did not respond to Al Jazeera’s multiple requests for comment on the case, has previously said the mine would bring jobs and economic development to an impoverished region of Honduras. Lenir Perez – the company’s co-owner, alongside his wife, Ana Facusse – has told journalists the conflict surrounding the mine has been fomented by leftist groups from outside the region.
Perez and Facusse are among the most powerful couples in the country, with influential allies in the National Party. Miguel Facusse, Ana’s late father, had alleged ties with drug traffickers, while the palm plantations connected to his Dinant Corporation – also in the Aguan Valley, near the Pinares mine and Guapinol – have been the site of intense conflict between peasant groups and heavily armed security forces.
There are also international powers behind the Pinares mine: A November 2020 cross-border investigation revealed that, until October 2019, a key supporter of the project was Nucor, a leading US steel corporation and major donor to former US President Donald Trump. The company had quietly backed Pinares through subsidiaries in Panama, Delaware and Switzerland.
Since the arrest of the Guapinol prisoners three years ago, an international network of human rights advocates and local residents has coalesced around their cause.
For weeks, friends and family members maintained an encampment outside the Tocoa court, with tents, stacks of mattresses and tables of coffee, tortillas, beans and cheese. Hundreds were in attendance to hear the verdict.
Although they have now been declared free by the Supreme Court, the Guapinol activists have yet to be formally released from jail. But in light of the positive outcome, local residents say they are determined to keep fighting against the mining project.
“The community is going to continue pushing for the cancellation of that mining permit,” George said. “We can’t go without water, without our river.”
Zamora said local residents “are conscious that the only way to put a mine in the middle of a national park is through corruption. They aren’t ready to let that mine still be there. The fight will continue for them”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on February 4, shortly after the court heard closing arguments in their case, Orbin Hernandez, one of the six activists, said he viewed the struggle in Guapinol as one small part of a much larger battle.
“I think most people are victims of the oligarchies and transnational businesses of the world,” he said, as police armed with assault rifles watched over him. “What’s happened to us could happen to any person in the world when they defend their rivers or their forests.”