The deaths of eight indigenous demonstrators taking part in a protest against the Guatemalan government in the southwestern province of Totonicapán have provoked outrage within the country and abroad. “The army should never be involved in actions of law and order,” said Helen Mack, the founder and president of the Myrna Mack Foundation. “Their doctrine is to kill, and what was happening there did not call for any killing.”
(IPS) – The deaths of eight indigenous demonstrators taking part in a protest against the Guatemalan government in the southwestern province of Totonicapán have provoked outrage within the country and abroad. The protesters accuse the army of shooting into the crowd.
“Now more than ever we are sure that it was them (the military) who opened fire. We were not armed,” Carmen Tacam, president of the indigenous organisation that led the Thursday Oct. 4 protest, told IPS.
That day, some 3,000 native demonstrators blocked the Pan-American Highway, which runs to the Mexican border, to protest reforms that expanded the study programme for becoming a schoolteacher from three to five years, and increased rates for electricity “which some people are billed for without even receiving the service,” as one protester said.
The protesters were also demonstrating against several constitutional reforms promoted by the government of retired general Otto Pérez Molina.
The army was called in, and according to the protesters the troops opened fire, leaving eight dead and 40 injured.
“Our demands still stand, but now we have two more: reparations for the victims’ families and the clarification of who was materially and intellectually responsible for the deaths of our compañeros,” Tacam said.
Right-wing President Pérez Molina claimed that several soldiers fired shots “into the air” and, backed up by the ministers of the interior and defence, accused a private security agent of shooting at the demonstrators.
On Friday Oct. 5, seven soldiers put at the disposal of the legal system said they had fired their guns in the air.
But on Monday, after meeting with foreign diplomats to explain what happened in Totonicapán, the president said he would respect the result of the investigation by the public prosecutor’s office and urged the protesters to engage in dialogue and not to hold further demonstrations.
The tragedy revived memories of the 1960-1996 armed conflict between government forces and left-wing guerrillas, which left 250,000 people dead or disappeared, most of them rural indigenous villagers, with the army being responsible for 93 percent of the human rights crimes according to the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH).
“Unfortunately we are regressing to the days of the armed conflict, but it is not our intention to take a confrontational attitude. There will be no mobilisation on our part, because we respect the mourning and pain of the families,” Tacam said.
Award-winning human rights activist Helen Mack, the founder and president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, said the incident should serve as a wake-up call to the authorities.
“The army should never be involved in actions of law and order,” Mack told IPS. “Their doctrine is to kill, and what was happening there did not call for any killing.”
Calls for an investigation into the incident also came from abroad.
On Monday Oct. 8, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion, Frank La Rue, said the use of the military to resolve social conflicts was a “grave mistake.”
And the secretary general of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, said it was “urgently necessary” to clarify what happened, as an “indispensable step towards calming tempers and paving the way to dialogue.”
The incident in Totonicapán forms part of a pattern of abuses by the security forces against civil society in this impoverished Central American country, where a majority of the population is indigenous.
Activist Jorge Santos, director of the International Centre for Human Rights Research (CIIDH), cited the 2004 murders of 12 peasants on the Nueva Linda estate in the southwestern province of Retalhuleu.
He also mentioned evictions of peasant farmers from estates in Polochic Valley, in the northwestern province of Alta Verapaz, in which three people were killed and 18 injured in 2011.
In both cases, the security forces were involved, and “today we see them once again involved in violence…But now…with the army being used to crack down on social conflicts,” Santos said.
In his opinion, the events of Oct. 4 were an example of what he called “the racist thinking” of police and government officials.
Santos said the offices of the public prosecutor and the human rights prosecutor should carry out exhaustive investigations, and the government should “demilitarise” the bodies in charge of citizen security.
Native activist Rosalina Tuyuc said she holds Pérez Molina responsible, “because the army acts under the president’s orders.”
“When this has been cleared up, we will be able to say there is confidence in the justice system. But if that doesn’t happen, this case will end up in impunity, like so many other cases,” she told IPS.
Tuyuc defended the use of roadblocks in protests as “the only way to make ourselves heard.”
Guatemala has a high level of social conflict and enormous inequalities between rich and poor.
The heavy concentration of land ownership is one of the main sources of conflict. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s productive land is in the hands of just five percent of the population, according to the U.N. Development Programme.