Guatemala

The criminalization of Indigenous land defense

Dawn Paley

Maria Soto and other Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against the indigenous Ixil people in the 1980s. Photo: Elena Hermosa/Trocaire (CC BY 2.0)

Birds trill from above through the heat and humidity, oblivious to the nearly 5,000 incarcerated men below. After a long wait to get approval to enter the largest men’s prison in Guatemala, I walk down the steps into the main area of jail. The mood inside is rowdy. A handful of new prisoners, still in the hold, call out to me in English. The smell of burned hair moves through the filthy corridor.

Eventually, we’re allowed to see Abelino Chub Caal, a schoolteacher who spent 10 years accompanying Maya Q’eqchi’ communities in their land struggles before he was arrested in February of 2017. Two investment corporations pressed charges, accusing him of disturbing the peace, illicit association (under anti-narcotics legislation), and arson, allegedly for burning a field of African oil palm in the eastern province of Izabal.

We greet each other through a thick acrylic pane with a dozen pea-sized holes at mouth level. “If the crime for which I have been detained has been representing communities, then it’s evident that state authorities and the companies don’t want me supporting the communities,” says Chub Caal, straining to be heard against the din. “What these communities did was re-occupy the lands that they were pushed off during the [civil] war.”

Chub Caal paints a bleak picture of dozens of Indigenous families with little access to lands for farming, some of whom are near starving. Since he’s been in prison, he says, officials from the two investment corporations have visited and told him that if he stops his work with the communities, he’ll walk.

In the first six months of 2018, at least twelve land defenders were killed in Guatemala, most of them Indigenous.

The power of large landowners and the military means hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, like those supported by Chub Caal, remain displaced from their lands 21 years after the Peace Accords. Wealthy elites have a stranglehold on the national economy: 0.0001% represent more than half of the wealth in the country. Communal structures and traditional knowledge, especially that held by women, remain vibrant, but are under attack by armed groups and state institutions.

Migration, disaster, and insecurity

In June, US Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Guatemala, where he met with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador. The three agreed to ramp up anti-drug action. None of the men mentioned the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan to transform energy and logistics infrastructure in Central America while militarizing the region on the pretext of fighting the war on drugs.

In his remarks in Guatemala City, Pence stated “While many claim asylum, few are fleeing persecution.” The situation on the ground, however, looks very different. According to the World Bank, at the end of 2017 there were 242,000 people internally displaced by conflict and violence in Guatemala, and another 40,000 displaced by natural disasters. Guatemala’s homicide rate remains high, and Indigenous and campesino communities continue to be evicted from their lands in order to open the door to new energy and agribusiness interests.

Though many Guatemalans have chosen to attempt a dangerous journey to the United States, others remain and continue to work to protect their lands and lifeways from the threats posed by extractive industries, large landowners, and energy projects. In the first six months of 2018, at least twelve land defenders were killed in Guatemala, most of them Indigenous.

One of the most emblematic struggles in the country is that of the Xinca people, who number over a half-million and are one of two non-Mayan Indigenous groups officially recognized in Guatemala.

The Xinca struggle for recognition

Xinca identity, long denied, is undergoing a period of revival. A tall poster in the entryway of the Parliament reads “Xinca, a matter of the heart,” encouraging locals to reconnect to their Indigenous roots. There’s a familiar series of threats to Xinca lands: industrial farming of African palm oil, sugar cane, and eucalyptus, as well as a proposed superhighway connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific. “What we’re most concerned about are the threats from the extractive industries,” says Aleisar Arana, President of the Xinca Parliament.

The Xinca are on the national stage after winning a June 2017 injunction following a court challenge against a gold-lead-zinc mine owned by US-Canadian Tahoe Resources.

Locals have set up resistance camps to ensure the court injunction is respected. As in the case of Chub Caal, people participating in the resistance to the mine have been criminalized and threatened by state forces and mine security.

In the capital and in the territories, extreme inequality reigns in Guatemala

The court case on keeping the mine shut was before the Constitutional Court for months. “Either we’re going to continue with this system where large corporations can do whatever they want, or we’re going to set a precedent that the law means something, and it should be respected, even if that means ‘damaging’ the interests of a large corporation,” said Magalí Rey Rosa, an ecologist who has been active in conservation struggles for decades.

In early September, the Constitutional Court upheld the suspension of the mine and ruled that the Xinca people must be consulted before any mining activity takes place. In response, the Xinca Parliament stated they had hoped for a definitive suspension of the project, but saw it as an important precedent towards the legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples, and as a chance to permanently stop the mine.

In the capital and in the territories, extreme inequality reigns in Guatemala, and militarization is increasingly the norm. “The current conditions of inequality and land expropriation appear just as they did in the 1970s,” said Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul, a Maya K’iche’ sociologist. “Those are the very conditions that led to the internal conflict and to genocide.”


Dawn Paley is the Mexico-based author of Drug War Capitalism (AK Press, 2014).

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