Miguel Facusse, an old-school tycoon and one of the richest men in Honduras, felt extremely comfortable in his powerful skin. So much so that his aides left him alone for nearly six hours with a Los Angeles Times reporter for a wide-ranging interview in 2012.
The aides might have felt some chagrin later, when The Times quoted Facusse talking about hiding the gun he usually kept on his desk so that the reporter wouldn’t see it. And when he said that he “probably had reasons to kill” a prominent human rights lawyer who had been murdered, but insisted “I’m no killer.”
Facusse, a colorful, often ruthless and enormously successful entrepreneur, died Monday in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, his food-processing company, Dinant Corp., announced on its website. He was 90. A cause of death was not given.
As part of a generation that ran impoverished Honduras like a private fiefdom, Facusse was not shy about throwing his weight around, advising presidents, U.S. ambassadors and the military. Some in Honduras say that it was often Facusse calling the shots.
And as Honduras in recent years descended into widespread deadly violence, political chaos and social disaster, Facusse and his security guards were repeatedly accused by human rights groups of responsibility in brutal land grabs and clashes with peasants. Scores of people have been reported killed in the vast Lower Aguan Valley in northeastern Honduras, much of it controlled by Facusse and Dinant.
The violence and his possible role in it cost Facusse numerous World Bank loans and other international financing that he said had helped build his business empire.
Born Aug. 14, 1924, in Tegucigalpa, Facusse was the son of Bethlehem-born Palestinian Christians who came to Central America in the early 1900s.
Educated at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, he worked in the aviation industry in various Central American countries before returning to Honduras to launch the business that would make him millions manufacturing and marketing snack products, detergents and, most recently, biofuels such as African palm oil.
“I have been a very successful businessman,” he told The Times.
And a lightning rod for badly polarized Honduras.
As for the accusations from human rights organizations, Facusse said he had been made a scapegoat by people with an ideologically motivated agenda. He acknowledged that his private jet was used to remove the Honduran foreign minister from Honduras against her will as part of a coup unseating the president in 2009. But he said the pilot was a military man and acted without his knowledge.
He confirmed assertions made in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables that small planes transporting cocaine for Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers were landing on his farmland. But he said he was working to stop it.
The human rights lawyer whom Facusse denied killing was Antonio Trejo, who was locked in numerous legal battles with Dinant on behalf of peasant farming cooperatives. Also an evangelical preacher, Trejo was cut down by six bullets in September 2012 as he left a Tegucigalpa church. He had received death threats and had publicly stated that if anything ever happened to him, Facusse would be responsible.
Former U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman took the unusual step of singling out Facusse in a 2012 letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging that aid be cut to human rights abusers in Honduras.
For all his wealth, Facusse maintained a folksy demeanor with visitors and a relatively modest office in his corporation’s Tegucigalpa headquarters. There were no TVs or computers, and a credenza was packed with family photos.
He clearly commanded the respect of his employees. At one point, as he gave The Times reporter a tour of the compound, he entered a room and everyone immediately stood.
The Dinant statement praised Facusse as a “pioneer” and “a man with an unbreakable spirit” who had created thousands of jobs in Central America and greatly expanded the consumer market. He “would take the pulse of the world every morning, and before his eyes see an interminable parade of opportunities, for himself and his country.”
Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available, but Facusse was known to have several children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, including one who once served as president of Honduras.