TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Honduran authorities on Monday ordered the exhumation of the body of a land defender who died under unclear circumstances near the country’s Caribbean coast.
Members of an ethnic group of mixed African and Indigenous heritage contend the death of Ricardo Arnaúl Montero was a homicide related to a long-running land dispute.
Police had preliminarily considered the death Saturday a drowning, but his body was buried before an investigation was carried out.
The Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, which works with Garífuna communities, said Montero had been receiving death threats since November.
“He shows up dead as if he drowned and there was no autopsy,” said Miriam Miranda, coordinator general of the organization, known as Ofraneh. “We don’t believe that. He was murdered.”
Neither police nor Miranda provided any details about the circumstances of Montero’s death in the community of Triunfo de la Cruz in the municipality of Tela.
If Montero was slain, he would be at least the third land defender killed in northern Honduras already this year.
Earlier this month, Aly Domínguez and Jairo Bonilla were riding a motorcycle between La Concepción and Guapinol when they were shot. Both men were known defenders of the nearby Carlos Escaleras National Park.
Miranda said Montero lived along near the Gama river and was active in defending lands where outsiders have pushed into areas traditionally populated by Garífuna. For years, Garífuna in the area have denounced such incursions, harassment and the disappearances of other activists, she said.
In 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decided in favor of the Garífuna of Triunfo de la Cruz and against the Honduran government for violating their collective property rights.
“Since the sentence was issued, the conflict escalated, and it is going to continue,” Miranda said.
Alice Shackelford, the United Nations representative in Honduras, called for an end to the killings in a tweet Sunday decrying “unceasing violence against (human rights) defenders in Honduras.”
However, Tulio Enrique Martínez, president of a community association in Triunfo de la Cruz known as a patronato, said Montero’s death had been distorted and there was no crime committed.
“They want to somehow denigrate our municipality in a way to deter tourism,” Martínez said.
Cristian Nolasco, spokesman for the Investigative Police, said authorities would carry out an autopsy after Montero’s body was exhumed to determine the cause of death.