Demonstrators protest a San Francisco presentation on June 8 promoting the construction of charter cities in Honduras. Photo Alexis Terrazas

Honduran-born Zenaida Velásquez, who fled her homeland 31 years ago and now lives in San Jose, has plenty to fight for.

Her older brother Angel Mandfredo was an activist, who was kidnapped and disappeared by Honduran death squads on Sept. 12, 1981. Her younger sister Ilse Ivania, also an activist, was killed during a 2011 protest against the regime of then president Porfirio Lobo.

“That’s what moves me,” said Velásquez. “And when it has to do with my people, my compatriots, my country, I can’t stand idly by.”

On June 8, Velásquez was one of several dozen demonstrators who gathered outside 44 Tehama Street in San Francisco to protest a panel on Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs) also know as “Charter Cities” in Honduras.

These Charter Cities (sometimes referred to as “Model Cities”) were originally approved by the Honduran congress in 2011. They are developed on protected areas currently inhabited by indigenous peoples. The goal is to entice wealthy foreigners with the promise of a tropical paradise where Honduran law doesn’t apply.

In 2012 the Honduran Supreme Court declared Charter Cities unconstitutional. But legislation passed in 2013 under the newly elected president Juan Orlando Hernández and a new Supreme Court, which effectively renamed Charter Cities as ZEDEs.

The June 8 panel event titled “Choice for Hondurans – Creating Zones for Economic Development and Employment” was co-hosted by both The Seasteading Institute and the Independent Institute and aimed at investors in the Bay Area.

Photo Alexis Terrazas

“Honduras has enacted the boldest legislation of any nation in recent history, effectively opening a new jurisdictional frontier,” was how the event was described on its Eventbrite page. “Zones for Economic Development and Employment, (ZEDEs) will be developed with entirely new governmental systems, fostering a market of governance bodies competing to attract residents.”

But demonstrators see a much different situation.

“Perhaps, theoretically, this is a good idea,” said Marleni Quintano, who fled Honduras 19 years ago. “But given the system in which Honduras is in—a corrupt country with corrupt politicians, where the life of a citizen isn’t worth anything—that’s how we know this model for Honduras won’t work. This would just lead to the robbing of the little pieces of land that the people have…which they use to cultivate and survive.”

One of the groups that protesters say will be targets of displacement are the Garifuna, descendants of West African, Carib and Arawak people.

Honduran activist Porfirio Quintano said the most attractive locations for the ZEDEs are along Honduras’ coasts—in the Gulf of Fonseca sharing the Pacific Ocean, and along the Atlantic where the Garifina populated.

Proponents of the ZEDEs insist the business model will help Honduras, a country marred by poverty and the highest murder rate in the world, crawl out destitution.

“It’s just a different ideology. Their thinking is, ‘Let business in there, and everything will get better. If business is in there, they’ll create Jobs and they’ll create economic prosperity. All that will trickle down and make life better.’ And they really believe that,” said protester Kathleen Densmore. “With this kind of stuff, the profits always go to the elite first…no matter what country.”

President Hernandez was originally billed as a guest speaker, but plans changed after massive protests against his regime erupted earlier this month after the president admitted that his election campaign received funds from financiers linked to an embezzlement scandal.