On June 20 and 27, two of the most renown Indigenous Lenca leaders from the Consejo Indígena Lenca de Reitoca, Wilmer Otoniel Alonzo, President of the Council, and Jose Orlando Rodas Garcia, his brother-in-law, will face trial on charges of usurpation and damages. Their trial will be heard by Court of Letters of Francisco Morazan in the Supreme Court of Justice of Tegucigalpa.
The malicious criminal case against the Indigenous Land Defenders goes back to October 2018 when hydroelectric company Promotora de Generación de Energía Limpia S.A (PROGELSA) filed a complaint at the Public Ministry against the pair in an attempt to repress the peaceful organizing of the wider Indigenous Lenca community of Reitoca, who were adamant to stop the illegal development of a dam project on the sacred Grande River in Lenca ancestral territory. PROGELSA was founded by Jack Arevalo Fuentes, the former Manager of the ENEE, who has long been associated with controversial hydroelectric projects in Honduras.
The affected Indigenous Lenca communities, who have legal titles for the land dating back to 1735, certified by King Philip of Castile of the Spanish crown, were never consulted in good faith about the project and never gave their free, prior, and informed for it to go ahead. Despite years of violent repression and criminalization, and community members attest to being threatened and tricked into selling land that was used by the company to build roads, the Indigenous Lenca Council and affected communities remain steadfast in defending the Petacon River and demanding the hydroelectric concession be canceled, as the project would have devastating impacts for their lives, lands, livelihoods, beliefs, spiritual and cultural activities, and general way of life.
Although Wilmer and Jose Orlando key members of the struggles for the autonomy of the Indigenous Lenca Council of Reitoca, the broad community support to stop the illegal implementation of the hydroelectric project is clear through the mass mobilizations in the area. The criminalization of the two Lenca Land Defenders is part of a systemic attack against Indigenous Land Defenders in Reitoca, and Honduras. The Lenca Indigenous communities of the municipality of Reitoca have been victims of violent repression, excessive force, serious injuries, illegal raids, and criminalization, creating an environment of terror for those exerting their inherent and sovereign rights as an Indigenous community be respected.
Fifteen Indigenous Land Defenders from Reitoca are beneficiaries of Precautionary Measures granted by the State, but there have been no concrete measures taken to ensure their safety and security, including canceling the illegal project, which is the root of the violence and threats against them.
As part of the systemic violation against Indigenous communities, the State of Honduras has failed to consult and obtain the free, prior, and informed consent before proceeding with mega projects which put the lives, livelihoods, spiritual and cultural practices of affected Indigenous communities at risk. Although the licenses required to operate the “Petacon River Hydroelectric Plant” were illegally granted during previous Administrations, the current Xiomara Castro Administration has failed to review and cancel the projects despite widespread calls from affected communities.
More about the case:
The headwaters of the Grande River begin in Lepaterique and flow through neighboring Reitoca, mountainous municipalities both part of the department of Francisco Morazan, located southwest of the capital city Tegucigalpa in what is known as “The Dry Corridor”.
On May 24, 2011, without obtaining the required free, prior, and informed consent of the affected Lenca Indigenous People, the Government of Honduras granted an environmental license, required for operating, to PROGELSA, owned and operated by the Arévalo Fuentes family. The license was signed by Marco Jonathan Lainez Ordonez, former Vice Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (Serna), who granted a 50-year category 2 environmental license (Number 362-2011) for the company to install a 14.8 MW hydroelectric project.
Despite the Lenca community exercising ongoing territorial control, meetings with the company and shareholders, and relevant state actors to express their disaccord with the project, PROGELSA began building access roads in April 2016, without the consent of the affected Indigenous communities. This caused contamination of the river, which was used for fishing and to irrigate small subsistence crops, and for cultural and spiritual practices.
PROGELSA argues that the affected communities are not Indigenous Lenca, the 2013 Population and Housing Census of the National Statistics Institute (INE) notes that around 70% of the population of Reitoca self-identifies as Lenca while the number is about 12% in Lepaterique.
In December 2018, Ex-Vice Secretary Laínez Ordóñez was charged with abuse of authority by the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups and Cultural Heritage for having irregularly granted the environmental license for the construction of the controversial dam, criminally accusing him of granting the license without first consulting and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the Lenca community, as required by Honduran law. Honduras is a signatory to ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.
The actions of former Vice-Secretary Laínez Ordóñez were part of a systematic violation by the Honduran State against the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including their right to self-determination, a right that enables peoples to define the political and legal institutions that will govern relations between members of the group, the right to autonomy or self-government to regulate their internal affairs according to their customs, which is vital to ensure their survival as distinct peoples; It also includes the right to determine their priorities and development strategies, while maintaining their right to participate fully, if they so wish, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.
Laínez Ordóñez was charged for granting environmental licenses, required for operating hydroelectric projects in Honduras, in a similar way in other Indigenous Lenca territories, including "Aurora II", on the Palagua River, in the Lenca indigenous community of Guajiquiro, La Paz; “Agua Zarca” on the Gualcarque River in the community of Rio Blanco, Intibuca, as well "Hidroluz" on the Wampu River in Dulce Nombre de Culmi, Olancho in Pech Ancestral Territory. In June 2018, Laínez Ordóñez was sent to pretrial detention, but in 2019, he was later cleared of all charges.
April 2014: Secretary of Environment (SERNA) approves environmental license for the Petacon Hydroelectric project, without consulting with, and obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Lenca communities.
March 11, 2015: During an ordinary session of Congress, 12 hydroelectric projects were approved, including that on the Petacon River, which gave huge economic advantages to the companies.
August 2017: members of the community of Reitoca began to denounce environmental damages to the Special Prosecutor for the Environment.
January 15, 2018: Organized Lenca communities resisting the illegal implementation of the hydroelectric project, which has Honduran and Italian capital, set up a peaceful protest camp, demanding the company immediately leave their ancestral territory.
January 30, 2018: The camp was illegally and violently evicted by State and Company Security two weeks later, using gas and live ammunition against community members. Although community members were shot and injured, no members of the military were held accountable. What followed the illegal eviction was a stigmatization campaign headed by Elisa Paz, of the Honduran Renewable Energy Association, making false accusations against members of the Indigenous Lenca Council.
In March 2018, the Municipality of Reitoca was declared free of mining and hydroelectric operations in an open town hall meeting, carried out according to the customs of the Lenca People. The Mayor’s Office, long to be said to be working in cahoots with the company, has yet to implement the will of the People and cancel the company’s operating license.
September 15, 2018: Members of the Indigenous Lenca Council set up a roadblock to exert their sovereign rights over their territory. That same day, the PROGELSA work camp and plant, was mysteriously burned. The company and the Honduran Renewable Energy Association publicly blamed the members of the community of causing more than $2.7 million worth of damages and theft. From there, corporate media and the COHEP business lobby, among others, began a stigmatization campaign against the Indigenous Lenca Council of Reitoca, leaving them vulnerable to attacks, harassment, and criminalization.
October 2018: Wilmer Otoniel Alonzo and Jose Orlando Rodas Garcia were arrested and charged with usurpation and damages to private property against PROGELSA. Although they did not face pretrial detention at their arraignment hearing on October 31, 2018, both Lenca Land Defenders have had to travel to Tegucigalpa every Friday since to sign in at the courthouse, having a huge economic impact on them and their families. They will finally face trial for these charges on June 20 and 27, 2022.
April 24, 2019: National Police and Cobras carry out another illegal and violent eviction of the protest camp, resulting in a gun-shot injury against a youth at the protest camp.
March 2020: Police report their offices in Reitoca being burnt. In August 2021, Five Indigenous Lenca Land Defenders, including Jose Orlando Rodas Garcia, had their homes raided and were charged with aggravated arson and attempted murder against the Secretary of Security. In August 2021, the case was provisionally closed after evidence showed that the fire was started inside the police station, where the police agents were located, not by protestors outside as the Public Ministry alleged.
 According to a Criterio investigation (https://criterio.hn/hidroelectrica-petacon-y-la-caceria-de-los-ambientalistas-lencas/), Progelsa has a close relationship with, Sorgent Chile SPA (which owns 42.98 % of the company shares), a subsidiary of Italian holding company Sorgente. s.r.l (which directly owns 0.000000037 %) while Bahncafe owns the other 57.03% of shares.