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In Honduras, a controversial tycoon responds to critics

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."

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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.

Trejo represented several farmers cooperatives that were locked in legal battles with Facusse over land in the Lower Aguan Valley in northeastern Honduras. Shortly before he was killed, Trejo won a court ruling in one of the cases. After receiving death threats, he had publicly declared that if anything happened to him, Facusse was responsible.

"It was a big loss; Trejo gave his life for the campesinos," said Karla Zelaya, a university student who helps organize peasants. She was kidnapped and held for several hours the other day by gunmen who drove her around Tegucigalpa, blindfolded, demanding to know the names and whereabouts of rural activist leaders.

The slaying of Trejo was followed closely by the killing of a campesino leader he represented, adding to the more than 60 people, mostly farmers but also a handful of Facusse security guards, killed in the last two years. There have been few arrests and no prosecutions.

In October, shortly before he lost reelection, U.S. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) took the unusual step of singling out Facusse in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Berman demanded a major overhaul of U.S. policy toward Honduras, including suspension of aid to human rights abusers. He repeated Trejo's accusation, calling for an investigation of Facusse.

"It is breathtaking that Facusse has been so untouchable," said a House of Representatives staffer with knowledge of the issue, who spoke anonymously in keeping with Washington protocol.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, in filings with the International Criminal Court, alleges that Facusse may have committed "crimes against humanity" in the killings of Trejo and several peasant farmers.

In the recent interview, Facusse denied killing Trejo, whom he labeled a crooked lawyer who faked land deeds. (Trejo and associates had contended, repeatedly and publicly, that Facusse stole the land in the first place.) He said he considered suing Berman but was advised by friends that legal action would be a waste of time.

Facusse's corporate financial officer, Roger Pineda, says his boss' critics have an agenda.

"We are caught between something ideologically and politically motivated," he said. "It is most convenient to point at Don Miguel."

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Critics also point to Facusse as a backer of the 2009 coup that ousted left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya. Facusse is evasive about his role in the coup, saying Zelaya, who has returned to Honduras after nearly two years in forced exile, "is still my friend."

He said Zelaya had become a "puppet" of Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez — echoing one of the common justifications used by the coup plotters. Ultimately, he said, Zelaya was bad for business.

"Although I was a friend of his, as an investor, I could not back him," Facusse said.

A few days before the coup, he recalls, then-U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens asked him to call his friends to try to delay the action. "I called 15 people," Facusse said. "But they all said we can't prevent the course of events."

U.S. officials denied Facusse's account, calling it absurd.

Facusse keeps files of photos of the various Honduran activists who are most vocal against him.

He said they have sparked international criticism that has cost him millions of dollars in lost loans from lenders that had helped him in the past, like the World Bank and the International Development Bank.

"My name is mud all over the world," he said. "I'm the bad guy in the world."

But, he added with a smile, stopping him for good "will take some doing."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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