Dear Rochester Committee on Latin America,
When men and women of Santa María Xalapan, Guatemala arrived at their homes over the weekend, they found to their horror that their houses had been ransacked. Their belongings had been destoryed or stolen. The police and soldiers who carried out the warrantless searches kept neighbors and passing vehicles away to avoid witnesses to the flagrant violation of human rights.
The justification for the searches, along with the declaration of a “state of siege” in four municipalities, varied from searching for stolen weapons to tracking down members of organized crime groups. However, the true motivation behind the crackdown is clear, to punish the communities and leaders which have organized to oppose the El Escobal Mine in San Rafael las Flores.
A state of siege, akin to a declaration of martial law, suspends several constitutional rights. When President Otto Pérez Molina declared a state of siege in May 2012 in Santa Cruz Barillas, dozens of people were arrested, and 11 of them were held in Guatemala’s notoriously dangerous and inhumane prisons for up to eight months. Despite the lack of evidence against them, the detained suffered illness and violence, while their families suffered hunger and uncertainty.
Once again, those targeted for arrest include leaders in a struggle against a mega-development project, such as Roberto Gonzales Ucelo. Ucelo is the President of the Xinca Parliament who was kidnapped earlier this year as he returned from a community referrendum on the mine.
A verification mission led by the Guatemalan organization Waqib Kej to the affected municipalities has reported abuse of authority, intimidation, excessive use of force, and theft as the illegal searches were carried out. They also report that one women lost her child during birth as the mother was too terrified to go to a hospital due to the presence of the military. (Photo: Billy Ochoa)
The state of siege is one more step in a series of attacks on anti-mine protesters.
On April 11, 26 people were arrested for protesting in front of the mine on private property. They were held for four days and then released without charges against them. Several people were injured
during the arrest. Gloria Maria Caute says “My business is down. Everyone is afraid.” (Photo: Mimundo.org)
On April 27, six people were shot by security guards as they passed in front of the entrance to the mine, two of whom were gravely injured.
On April 30, a police officer was shot and killed when police tried again to remove protesters from in front of the mine. The killing was used as one justification for the state of siege. However, the person arrested for allegedly shooting the officer reportedly works for the mine itself.
The past repeats itself.
During Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, indigenous peoples, and others who spoke out to defend their rights, were persecuted, displaced and brutally massacred. This violence was carried out as part of a government strategy to maintain an economic system that benefited a small minority of elite families, leaving the majority marginalized and in conditions of poverty. The State tried to justify its tactics by labeling these citizens as “internal enemies” who threatened Guatemala’s stability.
Today, as large-scale “development” projects are imposed without consultation or the consent of those affected, displacing families and contaminating their land, indigenous peoples and peasant communities are again fighting against economic and social inequality and demanding that their vision of development be respected. These human rights defenders are again facing accusations of being “terrorists,” internal enemies and a threat to national security.
Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla and President Otto Pérez Molina have made public statements claiming that the purpose of the searches, arrests, and massive buildup of soldiers and police as well as the state of siege declared in two municipalities in the department of Jalapa and two more in Santa Rosa is to target drug trafficking and organized crime in the region. This has been a consistent tactic of this administration, to justify repression of indigenous and community groups by conflating them with the organized crime that terrorizes much of the Guatemalan population and the drug trafficking that has become the boogey-man of the US.
Social movements in defense of land and territory are based on the devastating impacts of mines and other mega-development projects on their lands. But the government ignores the legitimate concerns of these communities and instead uses violence and military repression to silence them.
GHRC has consistently denounced the use of states of siege, especially when they target legitimate, peaceful protests. They not only eliminate constitutional guarantees which have been hard won in Guatemala, but also terrorize vulnerable populations still scarred by brutal military repression.
Working with the International Coalition against Unjust Mining in Guatemala (CAMIGUA), we helped collect over 4,300 signatures on a petition to the Guatemalan government requesting that the violence around the El Escobal mine not be used as an excuse to militarize the region and that instead the CICIG be called on to help uncover its true source.
We again call on Guatemalan authorities to respect the rights of the Guatemalan people and stop criminalizing men and women who are simply upholding their right to a clean environment.
If you would like to support our work in defense of these communities and human rights defenders, you can make a donation here.
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