Human Rights Violations in Guatemala: Hearing Indigenous Voices

On March 13, 2012, thousands of Indigenous people gathered in the chilly highland town of Totonicapan, Guatemala, milling into the town’s soccer stadium to await the arrival of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, during her official visit to the country. The day of the month marked Noj, is designated as a day of wisdom according to the Mayan calendar. Old American school buses repurposed as public transportation in Guatemala came barreling into the town earlier that morning, carrying passengers from all points in the country.
Indigenous Peoples came from the desert of Chiquimula, the rainforest of Peten, the Cuchumatan mountains along the border of Mexico, the steamy Caribbean coast of Isabal, and the rolling hills of the Verapaces. In a country with roads that wrap around mountain after mountain, bus travel can take over four hours to cover a distance that is 30 miles as the crow flies. To arrive by the meeting’s start at nine in the morning, many had to madrugar, leaving their homes as early as the busses started running—two o’clock in the morning. The thousands of people who traveled long hours and the tangible urgency in their voices made two truths apparent that morning: the ubiquity of human rights violations occurring across Guatemala at this moment, and the Indigenous populations’ understanding and faith in human rights mechanisms as tools for righting the wrongs they are experiencing.

Pillay was visiting Guatemala in preparation of Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism of the UN Human  Rights Council through which member countries periodically review another country’s human rights performance. She was in Totonicapan to listen to the testimonies of Indigenous Peoples confronting human rights violations. Sitting among a panel of human rights officials, on a stage constructed for the occasion, a banner was cast below her stating, “Reconstructing a good life in the new Baqtun era—No more concessions or mega-projects.”

During four hours of testimonies from traditional Indigenous authorities, leaders of community groups, non-profits, and traditional spiritual guides denounced the forced relocation from their traditional lands, the abuses of transnational companies, remilitarization of communities under the regime of the new President Otto Perez Molina, former general during Guatemala’s civil war, the growing criminalization of Indigenous activists fighting unauthorized development, and the exclusion, marginalization, and discrimination from the State of Guatemala to which they continue to  be subjected. Each presenter had just five minutes at the microphone to convey in as concise a way as possible all the suffering to which their community has been subjected before the red light flashed indicating that their turn had ended.

The common thread among each of these presentations was the recognition of the irony and injustice their communities face after documents like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 have been ratified by the State of Guatemala. “Despite these international mechanisms, the State continues to violate our human rights, and the discrimination and racism of the State is allowed to flourish within the dynamic of globalization and neo-liberalism,” stated one presenter at the introduction to his speech. A  representative of the Achi community began his intervention: “There is a greeting in the Mayan language of Achi, that means ‘be happy of heart.’ Today, we are not happy in our hearts.”

The month of March marked one years’ passing since the violent evictions took place in the Polochic Valley, Alta Verapaz in 2011, a central issue brought up during the High Commissioner’s visit. The conflict began when 732 Maya Q’eqchi’ families in 14 communities were evicted by the company Chabil Utzaj, an African palm and sugar plantation economically powerful families in  Guatemala. The company acquired the contested land through a loan to agro-business by the Central American Economic Integration Bank. Hundreds of police officers, soldiers, and private security carried out the evictions, using tear gas on the population while company tractors destroyed the communities’ crops. Since then, the small farmers have become landless laborers, living in
temporary housing surrounded by sugar plantations while they can’t afford to buy the sugar produced there. One man in Paraná told reporters from Upside Down World, “We don’t want sugarcane here, we want corn, livestock, pigs, and things we can eat.”

Their crops burned and land usurped, small farmers and their communities were promised emergency food and shelter after a rebuke by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ on June 20, 2011. But the government never provided the emergency food aid and shelter that they promised. Explaining away the problem, government officials were quoted saying that they   haven’t been able to identify the communities that were evicted.” This tactic of marginalizing Indigenous Peoples issues was described by Navi Pillay in an interview as treating the majority of the country’s population “as if they were invisible.” This unofficial policy of a “narrative of disappearance” began during the civil war, and has continued through each administration: disappearing of victims’ bodies, disappearing human rights violations, and dismissing an entire population’s concerns and demands.

Another issue repeated again and again among Indigenous activists that morning was the relentless strategy by the government to criminalize grassroots organizing among activists vocal against transnational companies and the interests of big business. A woman from the Ixil region of Quiche declared, “We want to announce that we are not criminals nor terrorists for defending our land. Guatemala has converted to a state of repression, with impunity for the rich and a racist justice system. They accuse us of bioterrorism, opposition to development, and homicide.” The office of the UN High Commissioner of Guatemala stated in their last report that they have observed that authorities tend to discredit human rights defenders and criminalize their activities. In March, defenders of Indigenous rights who participated in a public rally related to the Technological Corridor project in Chiquimula were convicted of activities against national security and given a five-year imprisonment sentence, commuted to a prohibition to participate or promote illegal public demonstrations. In San Miguel Ixtahuacán, San Marcos, eight women who were protesting the Marlin Gold Mine were given orders for capture by local police.

For the community radio movement in Guatemala, of which Cultural Survival’s Guatemala Radio Project forms a part, this tactic of criminalization has been blatant and public. A series of radio campaigns broadcast by the Commercial Radio Trade Association call community radio leaders criminals and thieves, for broadcasting on frequencies for which they don’t have a license. For urban populations that are uninformed about the real work that community radio does, the campaigns have swung public opinion against them. What the campaign doesn’t mention is that Indigenous Peoples’ access to media, and specifically radio, was guaranteed in the 1996 Peace Accords, and reinforced in international human rights documents. One member of the movement, Santiago Ajcalon, founder of Radio Juventud in the village of Xajachac, Solola, explained, “According to authorities, we are a ‘pirate radio.’ But the people are aware of the radio, the entire community gives us their support. We are not pirates.”

Community radio stations operate in a constant state of fear of arrest by national police, who raid stations and charge leaders with the crimes of robbery, incitement to violence, and obstruction of justice. “We don’t want to operate outside of the law, but the current rules leave us no choice. We have a right to community radio,” said the president of another station in San Juan Comalapa, the day after it had been raided by police. Cultural Survival staff Rosendo Pablo Ramirez, a Mam Maya of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, presented an intervention on behalf of the Movement of  Community Radio Stations in Guatemala, urging an end to the criminalization of community radio and subsequent approval of Bill 4087 for Community Media that would legalize community radio.
He addressed Navi Pillay: “The Peace Accords of 1996 declare that the current telecommunications law be revised to redistribute radio frequencies for the benefits of Indigenous Peoples. The response of the ruling class has been to raid community radio stations and persecute their leaders, due to pressure from the Commercial Radio Trade Association.”

For Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala, commercial media has failed its mandate to inform and stimulate dialogue with unbiased news. Mass media has systemically avoided topics that speak to the needs, interests, and rights of Indigenous Peoples who make up the majority of the country, and facilitated the criminalization of anti-mining activists as terrorists. Navi Pillay responded to the interventions at the close of the ceremony: “The promotion and protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples is a key priority of mine. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples remains a vital part of my work. This document, which Guatemala signed in 2007, underlines the rights of Indigenous Peoples to their culture, to particular forms of social organization, and to their territory. I lament the projects that have damaged the earth, culture, and communities.” Later, reflecting on the experience, she commented, “I was struck by the unanimous voices describing
exclusion in all spheres, including access to basic services, land ownership, access to justice, participation in public decision-making processes and bodies.” She noted that the critical problems currently facing Guatemala stem from the fact that 15 years after the signing of the Peace Accords, its contents have not been enacted and the structural problems the Accords aimed to fix have not been resolved. She emphasized that the Accords are still valid and necessary in order for the country to find peace. In a meeting with Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, who was present at the signing of the Accords, Molina “reaffirmed his commitment to implement the Accords” to Pillay. Pillay emphasized that unity among Indigenous Peoples is crucial to success in the implementation their rights. “I am pleased to find that the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala are capable of speaking for themselves, and denouncing the problems they face,” she told the Guatemalan newspaper, El Periodico, in an interview.

That was March 13, five days before thousands of Indigenous Peoples, many of the same who were present that afternoon in Totonicapan, set off from the city of Coban Alta Verapaz, to march  215 kilometers to the capital of Guatemala City. The march was organized by an activist group, Comite de Unidad Campesino (CUC), who sent a call to action to Indigenous and campesinos (small farmers) across Guatemala to join the nine-day march, with the goal of bringing their causes to the attention of Guatemala’s congress, new president, and the media. The march also highlighted the anniversary of the forced relocations in the Polochic valley, destruction of the environment by transnational companies, and agrarian reform.

Through the CUC, Indigenous groups and campesinos have coalesced many of their efforts into one, unified demand. Currently eight bills pertaining to agrarian and Indigenous issues remain in congress waiting for a date to be scheduled for debate in plenary session; some have been waiting over 12 years. Each bill gets pushed to the back of the agenda while organizations spend  hard-earned resources trying to compete with the influence of powerful families, transnational extractive industries, and mass media conglomerates who buy votes.

Alberto “Tino” Recinos, director of community participation in the Cultural Survival’s Community Radio Project, believes that this unity among Indigenous and campesino groups has given the community radio movement much needed strength and backing. “We see that the actions that civic and grassroots organizations are taking as a group are getting results,” he said.

Arriving on Tuesday, March 27 to the main plaza in the colonial center of Guatemala City, thousands of Indigenous and campesinos protested with banners and megaphones, broadcasting their message to the nearby presidential palace and congress. By the afternoon, leaders had managed to gain meetings with all three branches of the state: the judicial, legislative, and executive. After 10 hours of dialogue with President Otto Perez Molina, an agreement was finally established to resolve the demands of the marchers in the early hours of the morning. Daniel Pascual, leader of the CUC, commented that they were happy with the dialogue and remain resolved to hold the president to his promises.

The 23 Indigenous groups in Guatemala have different traditions, different languages, and different cultures. Grouping them under one umbrella group does not necessarily mean agreements will come easily. The Xinca and Garifuna peoples in Guatemala do not even share a common ancestry with the Maya. Despite this, Indigenous groups in Guatemala have found a common ground. Two years ago, in conversation with an organizer of the Indigenous women’s organization, Miriam Pixtun, a Kaqchikel Mayan woman from San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, I was told she believed in coming years, mining was the issue that would bring different Indigenous Peoples together, within Guatemala and internationally. As Miriam suggested, these different communities have found that they are all facing repetitions of the same scenarios. The same strategies have occurred since times of colonization: abuse of Indigenous lands at the hands of outsiders who want to profit.

“Neo-liberal mega-projects bring continuity to the genocide against Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala,” exclaimed Juana Sales, former leader of CNAP, the National Commission on the Peace  Accords, in her minutes at the microphone addressing Navi Pillay. Indigenous people of Guatemala and the different groups fighting to give a voice to their problems make up a majority of the population. Perhaps, as Navi Pillay suggested, unity among Indigenous groups in Guatemala, may be the best strategy to combat the ruling classes’ narrative of disappearance.

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