Marvin Wilcox and Ligia Arreaga Detained and Released Amidst Land Dispossession
On 15 January 2019, human rights defender Marvin Wilcox was detained in Barú, in the province of Chiriquí, alongside four other producers who had been trying to sell their fruit and vegetable produce. Two weeks earlier, on 2 January, woman human rights defender Ligia Arreaga was detained as she tried to investigate the treatment of the Barú producers.
Ligia Arreaga is a woman human rights defender, the Coordinator of the Alianza por un Mejor Darién (AMEDAR - Association for a Better Darien) and an investigative freelance journalist focused on issues of environmental and land dispossession.
On 15 January 2019, human rights defender Marvin Wilcox was detained in Barú, in the province of Chiriquí, alongside four other producers who had been trying to sell their fruit and vegetable produce. Producers in Barú have been prohibited from selling their produce over the past number of months due to the implementation of a government project which seeks to dispossess over 400 producers of their lands to allow for the cultivation of bananas by multinational company Del Monte Fresh. Two weeks earlier, on 2 January, woman human rights defender Ligia Arreaga was detained as she tried to investigate the treatment of the Barú producers.
Marvin Wilcox is a human rights defender and a leader of the producers of Barú affected by the government project, known as Contract-Law 36-17. He is also a member of the Comité en Defensa de la Tierra de Barú (Barú Land Defence Committee) and “Unidos por el Agro”. The Barú Land Defence Committee is a group of rural producers seeking to protect their lands from concession to multinational companies. Ligia Arreaga is a woman human rights defender, the Coordinator of the Alianza por un Mejor Darién (AMEDAR - Association for a Better Darien) and an investigative freelance journalist focused on issues of environmental and land dispossession.
At approximately 1pm on 15 January 2019, Marvin Wilcox was detained alongside four other producers in the municipality of Barú, Chiriquí, for selling their harvest of bananas, manioc, papaya and avocado without having obtained prior authorization from the local authorities. Police confiscated the five trucks they had been using, as well as all of their produce, which has since mostly rotted. This produce is still awaiting inspection, which is scheduled for 30 January 2019. It is believed that Marvin Wilcox’s high-profile work as a leader in the Barú Land Defence Committee led to this specific group of producers being targeted.
All five producers were released on the evening of the 15 January, after seven hours of detention. An extra-procedural hearing has been scheduled for 2 February 2019. No further information has been given to the individuals about the hearing.
Marvin Wilcox has also been the target of a smear campaign; the human right defender reports that he has been portrayed in media outlets as attempting to take advantage of the producers for financial gain. The defender was also offered a bribe from an unknown source in exchange for suspending his human rights activities.
On 2 January 2019, Ligia Arreaga was detained for documenting a group of producers as they sought approval from a government-appointed mediator to sell their produce. The mediator, Ulzana Valdés, also known as “Juez de Paz” (Judge of Peace), is based at a police sub-headquarters in the municipality of Finca Blanco. On 2 January 2019, Ligia Arreaga witnessed producers with trucks full of agricultural produce at the police sub-headquarters. They were awaiting the approval of the mediator, who is acting alongside the mayor and the police. Ligia Arreaga reported that when she asked the mediator for an interview, Ulzana Valdés tried to her and take her camera. The mediator then ordered Ligia Arreaga’s detention for “invasion of privacy”.
Ligia Arreaga was detained and taken to a police station in Puerto Armuelles. She was not provided with any documentation regarding her detention, nor was she told where she was being taken. At the police station, she was subjected to two searches, one of which was a strip search. She was handcuffed to a metal bar on the wall alongside a cement bench for 26 hours, during which time she was denied food. Despite the decision of the First Municipal Judge of Barú to grant a habeas corpus in her favour on 2 January, Ligia Arreaga was only released at 5pm on 3 January. She received a fine of $300 US dollars for her inability to identify herself; the defender’s identification documents had been misplaced at the time of her detention.
Since October 2018, more than 400 rural producers of the Barú municipality have faced government-led dispossession attempts, due to the approval of the Contract-Law 36-17, which is supported by the Legislative Assembly of Panama. The Contract-Law grants the use of 6,000 hectares of land for 20 years for the mass production of bananas by the private company Banana Piña, a subsidiary of the multinational Del Monte Fresh. The Contract-Law has a clause that refers to the rural producers, who have occupied the land for over 20 years, as invaders.
More than 800 producers have exercised possession over the Barú lands since it was abandoned by the United Fruit Company in 1998. A number of the producers are legally attempting to obtain property titles for the land. To date, only one has succeeded.
The Panamanian authorities have been pressuring the producers to accept $2,200 US dollars in exchange for their lands. Since 26 December 2018, those who did not accept the offer have been subjected to several police-administered roadblocks on roads and those who remained inside the perimeter are being refused from transporting their goods, due to their status of “invaders”.
By hampering the producers’ ability to sell their produce, the Government has been limiting the communities’ ability to make a living. This has been lead primarily by the Barú mayor, the mediator, and the police, in an effort to force the producers from their lands. These authorities have been exercising de facto control over the transport of agricultural products, whose legal competence is de jure of the Agricultural Development Ministry.
Pressure from the government has increased since late last year. On 12 November 2018, the mediator ordered the removal of a number of producers from their lands for “trespassing”. This was confirmed by a court order. Although an appeal subsequently suspended the court order, the producers were removed by force on 21 November 2018. Several homes and thousands of crops, including those belonging to Marvin Wilcox, were destroyed. The Public Defender’s Office is conducting an administrative investigation into the acts of the mediator, particularly in light of allegations relating to abuse of authority.
Front Line Defenders is extremely concerned about the judicial harassment and detention of human rights defenders and producers in the region of Barú. Front Line Defenders expresses further concern regarding the lack of due process on the dispossession of producers and the indicators of abuse of authority and harassment in the fulfilling of Contract-Law 36-17. Finally, Front Line Defenders condemns the smear campaigns against producers who oppose the project; as the organisation fears that such stigmatisation may lead to a further increase in violence against them.