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In Honduras, a controversial tycoon responds to critics

Miguel Facusse denies being behind the killing of a Honduran human rights lawyer, among other allegations. He says he is a convenient scapegoat.

December 21, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Tycoon Miguel Facusse, one of the most powerful men in Honduras, denies involvement in the slaying of human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo. "I probably had reasons to kill him," Facusse said, "but I'm not a killer."
Tycoon Miguel Facusse, one of the most powerful men in Honduras, denies… (Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles…)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Miguel Facusse has his share of enemies. Even his friends acknowledge that the man who may be the most powerful person in Honduras is no angel.

Around his neck, he wears gold medallions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary; on his desk, he usually keeps a pistol — although he tells a reporter in a rare interview, "I removed it so you wouldn't see it."

The 89-year-old businessman travels this capital city in an armored SUV followed by bodyguards in a chase car and crisscrosses the country in his King Air turboprop, swooping down in other Central American nations where he also has businesses.

Or he flies off to his private airport at a vast nature reserve stocked with deer and jaguars. Armed guards watch over the animals and his guests alike.

"I have been a very successful businessman," Facusse said. (His friends agree that he has "done whatever it takes" to build a multimillion-dollar empire.)

For a symbol of the old style of patriarchal power still controlling small countries such as Honduras, an impoverished nation of 8 million that has been a perennial U.S. ally, look no further than the gray-haired and bespectacled Facusse.

He, and men like him, ruthlessly developed the country over the decades from a hot and dusty backwater to an international producer of bananas, cheap clothing and, more recently, biofuels. They have consorted with and served as advisors to the powers of the day, be they military strongmen, presidents or U.S. ambassadors.

Lately, Facusse's name keeps coming up when people talk about the horrors that have beset Honduras: turmoil in the wake of its 2009 coup, drug trafficking, deadly land grabs and the highest homicide rate in Latin America.

In a sign of the country's persistent instability, yet another coup is being rumored as the president, the courts and the Congress duke it out for dominance.

Facusse, the son of Catholic Palestinian immigrants who has made millions manufacturing and marketing snack products, detergents and palm oil, contends that he is a convenient scapegoat, a prominent figure easily targeted for blame.

An army of critics, including human rights organizations, peasant groups and several U.S. congressmen, say he and his private security forces are behind numerous dastardly deeds, maybe even the killing of a human rights lawyer.

Facusse is aware of some of the serious accusations against him, but offers an explanation. Yes, in the 2009 coup, his personal airplane was used to illegally carry the foreign minister out of the country against her will. He says his pilot, from the Honduran air force, acted on military orders without his approval.

And, yes, small planes transporting cocaine for Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers have landed on his vast property, their wares then sent on to America by land or sea. U.S. diplomats reported these events, as recounted in secret cables released last year by the website WikiLeaks. But Facusse claims he was the one who first denounced such activity and that he even tried to block narco landings by placing chains on his runways.

"I'm controlling it," he said. "The narcos are building airports all over the place.... It's a perfect place to land. Nobody is around."

As for the allegations of involvement in the lawyer's killing?

"I probably had reasons to kill him," he said, "but I'm not a killer."


Facusse doesn't normally grant interviews to foreign reporters, choosing instead to communicate through his attorneys or senior employees.

But he agreed to allow The Times to spend about six hours with him the other day at his compound in the Honduran capital, a walled enclave of one-story buildings that rises on a hillside overlooking a busy city roadway.

Wide, oval leaves of rubber trees curtain the broad windows of his office. Oil portraits of his Bethlehem-born parents hang above a credenza packed with photos of his many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, one of whom was a president of Honduras. (His father changed the family name, Facuz, to Facusse in the early 20th century during a stopover in France on his way to Honduras from what was then the Ottoman Empire.)

Given his wealth, the office is relatively modest, without a computer or TV, the snacks he produces displayed on shelves. He invited his visitor to a lunch of meat sandwiches served in Styrofoam containers.

He clearly hoped to answer his critics, and did his best to project an image of a benevolent, sometimes forgetful grandfather figure. When he walked into a room full of his employees, everyone stood.

Criticism of Facusse and his Dinant Corp. reached a peak in September after the slaying of prominent human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo.

Trejo, who was also an evangelical preacher, had just presided over a wedding at a church in Tegucigalpa when he was ambushed outside by gunmen. They pumped six bullets into him.

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