Summer 2000 Research Report

Daniel A. Graham
"Perceptions of Violence in Olancho Department, Honduras"


Image and identity: this young ladina girl dresses up in honor of a martyred Indian leader on el Día de Lempira, a day when the Lenca and other indigenous peoples publicly protest their poor treatment at the hands of the Honduran government.

I traveled to Honduras with the hope of conducting an inquiry into perceptions about the degree of social violence in the rural department of Olancho in eastern Honduras. Olancho Department is widely regarded, whether justly or not, as the "Wild West" of Honduras. I intended to focus my study on a particular stretch of highway running through Olancho which has been dubbed "el corredor de la muerte," meaning, "death row," due to the high incidence of highway robbery there. Through open-ended and semi-structured interviews with residents of several towns and villages that gird this stretch of highway, as well as through interviews and surveys conducted outside the region and through archival research in the capital city, I hoped to show that Olancho's reputation for violence has been overblown by the Honduran state and by the state-influenced media. My hypothesis was that the state had manipulated media coverage of the region to construct it as lawless and violent in order to justify its heavy-handed anti-subversive campaign in the region during the Contra War years of the 1980s.

The oral tradition keeps memory alive. An activist sings a tribute to fourteen hunger marchers—including two priests—who were massacred by cattle ranchers and the military in Juticalpa and Lepaguare, Olancho, twnty-five years ago.

After just a few interviews, I was soon convinced that there was more to the violent reputation than mere social construction. Informants supplicated me not to proceed with my project, out of apparent concern for my physical wellbeing. Also, due to the very high number of highjackings along el corredor, through bus service (my means of transportation) had been entirely cancelled. Given these circumstances, I changed the trajectory of my research slightly. Casting my net wider, I interviewed persons of various socioeconomic stations living in several cities, towns, and villages in Olancho (as well as in the capital city of Tegucigalpa) and solicited their views on "violent Olancho" as construction and/or reality. I quickly found, however, that for most of the people I was interviewing-campesinos in particular-the very idea of an interview seemed strange and artificial.

I finally hit on an angle for my interviews that gave me a great deal of insight into the issue of violence in Olancho while allowing my informants to feel more at ease. In one of my earliest interviews, I learned of a legendary 'social bandit' named Canuto who had stolen from the rich, defended the poor, and evaded the state police in the late 1980s and early 1990s before mysteriously disappearing. I began asking my informants what they knew about Canuto, and then I just let them talk. I found that the subject of Canuto was something they were all glad to talk about at length; I had the impression that people's views on social and economic relations in Olancho were transcribed into the language of folklore as they related their accounts of Canuto's derring-do. I gained the perspectives of campesinos, small and large ranchers, and two of the military officers who had been assigned to "hunt" Canuto (their words), and was able to put together most (but not all) of what seem to be the key elements of Canuto's extralegal career.

This septuagenarian agricultor living in southern Olancho insists that much of Olancho's violence was imported by landgrabbing cattle ranchers from the southern department of Choluteca.

Campesinos described Canuto to me in terms that closely match the social type identified by social historian Eric Hobsbawm as the 'social bandit'. An honest man who made his living as an agricultural wage laborer, José Montalbán adopted the identity of Canuto and resorted to violence to avenge the murder of his father by a wealthy landlord. He declared war on the wealthy landholding class in and around his hometown of Gualaco, Olancho. Using clever means-including cross-dressing-to fool and rob his victims, Canuto then redistributed a portion of his loot among the poorest of his neighbors. He also held hostage several members of the local forest service office because he suspected them of poaching trees from the forest for personal economic gain. The Honduran government used Canuto's exploits as their principal pretext for establishing and maintaining an unconstitutional secret police force in the region in the late 1980s and 1990s. Whether Canuto's capture was ever really an aim of the secret police I will not hazard a guess; it may be that his continued exploits provided a needed cover story for the secret police activities in the region at that time. At any rate, these police officials never succeeded in capturing or killing him.

Numerous robberies at this turnoff on the ill-famed corredor de la muerte led to the cancellation of all through bus service in western Olancho. Pictured here is a local bus, the passengers of which I made very nervous when I asked the driver to stop for this photograph.

Canuto's legend grew with each succeeding brush with the secret police. Campesinos attribute to Canuto such magical powers as imperviousness to bullets and the ability to shape-shift into a banana tree. Those who sought to capture him, meanwhile, conceded that Canuto was probably a good man; they differ on whether Canuto may have possessed supernatural powers. Those parties in most direct conflict with Canuto, namely the large cattle ranchers, are not as admiring, but even here there appears to be a grudging respect for Canuto's valor and "manliness." Debate continues about whether Canuto is dead or alive; state and media accounts report that he died at the hands of another criminal in the mid-1990s in the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, but the denizens of Canuto's hometown of Gualaco insist he is still alive and well.

My analysis of the various Canuto narratives, in conjunction with my understanding of olanchano history and social conditions, leads me to interpret the campesinos' stories about Canuto as coded criticism of the Honduran state and against the wealthy landowning class. The safekeeping and repetition of the Canuto legend among peasant householders serves as a form of 'everyday resistance'; attributions of magic powers, in the meantime, coyly veil the role that campesinos themselves likely played in aiding and abetting Canuto in his frequent escapes and disappearing acts. Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci has spoken of the need to listen to peasants' folklore to determine their degree and orientation of political and class-consciousness. In my assessment, olanchanos' tales of Canuto indicate a high degree of explicit class (and anti-state) consciousness and suggest the possibility that the region may be the scene of future mass mobilizations drawn along class lines.

The inconspicuous researcher.

As I was not expecting to be studying the phenomenon of social banditry on my arrival to Honduras, the interviews I conducted are probably best characterized as preliminary research. My time during the current school year has been spent reading theories of political and social violence, and resistance among peasantries, with particular attention paid to Gramscian literature and to Hobsbawm's work on social bandits. I intend to return to Honduras for two months during June and July of 2001 in order to flesh out and better systematize my data. The research I will have conducted over the summers of 2000 and 2001 will comprise the backbone of my master's paper, which I plan to complete by the end of fall semester, 2001. I also intend to return to Honduras for my doctoral research. I am not yet sure of my dissertation topic, but I suspect it will involve a political ecology 'take' on the interrelationship between the beef cattle industry and subaltern populations in both rural and urban Honduras. I am grateful to the Tinker Foundation and to the Center for Latin American Studies for having given me this first opportunity to conduct field research.

-Daniel A. Graham

Daniel Graham is a PhD student in the Department of Geography.

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