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“We Are Defending Life:” The Criminalization of Environmental and Indigenous Rights Activists in Guatemala PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Abbott   
Friday, 10 April 2015 13:45

On March 24, Rigoberto Juárez, a respected community leader and coordinator for the Plural-national government of the town and municipality of Santa Eulalia in northern Huehuetenango Department, was arrested in Guatemala City, Guatemala as he walked down 6th avenue in the historic center of the city. Along with Juárez was Domingo Baltazar, another community leader from Barillas, Huehuetenango, who was arrested as well. The two were accused of participating in the illegal detention of workers from in December 2013, but human rights observers claim otherwise; they argue that Juárez and Baltazar were arrested due to their leadership in the movement in defense of indigenous rights and territory.

“Rigoberto Juárez is clearly a prisoner of conscience,” said Claudia Samayoa of the human rights organization United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights (UDEFEGUA), which tracks attacks on those defending human rights. “But not just him, all those who are incarcerated from this conflict in Huehuetenango. They have been criminalized for the defense of their rights.”

The two have been deeply involved in the movement for indigenous rights, and against the invasion of indigenous territory by multinational companies. Since 2007, they have participated in the community resistance to the construction of private hydroelectric dams by transnational capital in northern Huehuetenango.

Workers from the construction site of San Luis hydro project brought the charges against Juárez and Baltazar. They claimed that the two community leaders were involved in their illegal detainment, as well as being involved in the sabotage of equipment at the construction site.

Three days after their arrest, the two were arraigned in the Tribunal Towers in Guatemala City. However, the judge ordered the release of Juárez and Baltazar to house arrest pending further investigation by the Public Ministry, because the Public ministry could not provide concrete evidence of the guilt of the two defendants.

“We hope that the public ministry does a more profound study,” said Juárez as he left the courtroom. “But what has been done is an act of discrimination and racism against our people.”

Juárez then called on the United Nations to investigate the violations of human rights and acts of racism and discrimination that are occurring in Guatemala, as well as to investigate the violations of human rights committed by the transnational companies operating in indigenous territory. Juárez described the current charges being brought against himself and other indigenous activists as  “a judicial offensive against our people.”

He then asked to see his wife, who was in the courtroom. They embraced and cried in celebration. But their joy was short lived.

As Juárez and Baltazar left the Tribunal Towers, they were immediately arrested once again on new charges that had been filed by the same Santa Eulalia judge two days prior, on March 26. The orders for arrest included 6 others, who were being charged with “kidnapping, abduction,” and the draconian charge of “the intent to commit a crime. The charges come reportedly from an incident in January 2013, but like the previous charges, evidence to support them is spotty at best.

Soon after their second incarceration, Juárez and Baltazar were transferred to the national maximum-security prison in Zone 18 in Guatemala City to await trial. The two have become the latest examples of the criminalization that leaders face for their defense of water and life.

Continued Repression Against Those Defending Life and Water

The community of Santa Cruz Barillas is one of the communities in northern Huehuetenango Department protesting the construction of dams in their territory, including the Santa Cruz hydroelectric project owned by the Spanish firm Ecoener Hydro Energy, as part of the regional energy integration project called for in Plan Mesoamerica.

The project has been plagued by human rights violations, including the failure of the Guatemalan government and companies to consult the indigenous communities prior to the issuing of permits, let alone the beginning of construction. This failure is a violation of both Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as articles 1, 66, and 67 of the Guatemalan constitution, both of which require the prior consultation of indigenous communities prior to projects.

The community has paid dearly for their resistance to the projects within their territory.

Pascual Pablo Francisco, a community leader from the community of Barillas in northern Huehuetenango, disappeared from his home the same day that Juárez was arrested in Guatemala City. Three days later, his body was found in a ditch outside the community with signs of torture.

“How are we supposed to interpret this?” asked Claudia Samayoa of the human rights organization United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights (UDEFEGUA), which tracks attacks on those defending human rights. “The same day that Pablo Francisco is found dead, the other leaders who are released and then arrested again within minutes. There is a message being sent: if we can not have prisoners, then we are going to have corpses.”

Other community leaders from the region have faced false charges, and years of incarceration.

26, February 2015, Guatemalan national police arrested Professor Arturo Pablo, Adalberto Villatoro, and Chico Palas, three community members associated with the community resistance to the construction of a hydroelectric project in Santa Cruz Barillas, in the Guatemalan department of Huehuetenango. The three were arrested on charges of “illegal detention, threats, the intention to commit a crime, and for elicit meetings and demonstrations.”

The families of those detained released a statement denouncing the charges shortly after their arrest.

“We have marched against the invasion of transnational corporations without respecting the community consultation held in good faith in our town,” the families wrote in their statement. “They (Professor Pablo, Bilatoro, and Palas) are not terrorists or criminals, and they are not kidnappers as accused.”

The community leaders were initially transferred to the prison in the municipality of Huehuetenango, where two other leaders from Barillas, Saul Mendez and Rogelio Velasquez, have been incarcerated since August 2013. Yet early in the evening of March 3, the Judge Jorge Alberto Cano Villatoro ordered the trio transferred to the Correctional Facility in Zone 18 in the capital, Guatemala City.

Mendez and Velasquez were detained and accused of participating in the murders of two women: one in August 2010 and October 2011. Yet it took the Government two years to make the arrests, leading many in the movement to interpret their arrests as political persecution for their resistance to the construction of the Santa Cruz hydro-electric project. The two have remained incarcerated in the municipality of Huehuetenango without officially being charged with a crime.

The Criminalization of Social Movements

There is a clear campaign to criminalize the social movements that are defending their rights. This campaign has intensified with the election of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2012, and reflects the government’s support for the transnational companies operating in indigenous territory.

“The government is fortifying their plan to support and defense of multinational companies and their projects in the country,” said Victor Sanchez of the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango in Defense of Territory and for the Autonomy and Free Determination of the People (ADH).

Lawyers familiar with the cases agree with this analysis, and argue that the charges against community leaders don’t just have their origins in the government, but have their origins in the businesses that the communities are resisting.

“The businesses finance and their lawyers finance the victims of these crimes to accuse the leaders of the social movement,” said Sergio Belterón, a lawyer involved in the defense of the leaders of various movements. “This was the case in Santa Cruz Barillas. There is the legal repression, or the orders for captures. The government accuses the leaders of robbery, of extortion, or how ever they phrase it. This is the criminalization of leaders of the movements – both indigenous and ladino.”

The criminalization has not just been limited to the leaders of the movements in northern Huehuetenango. In 2014, nine leaders from the non-violent resistance of La Puya in San Jose del Golfo faced criminal prosecution. In March 2015, the nine were cleared of any charges.

Human rights organizations have expressed concern over the criminalization and assassinations that the communities have had to face. The Washington D.C. based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission has called for the investigation of the assassination of the community leaders from Barillas.

“The Guatemalan government has a responsibility to guarantee the safety of community members participating in the legitimate defense of their rights,” they wrote in a blog post. “We are calling on the Attorney General to ensure a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation into the murders of both Mr. Pascual Pablo Francisco and Mr. Basilio Pascual.”

According to Samayoa, and other members of the Convergence for Human Rights, a coalition of human rights organizations, the ongoing assault against the community and indigenous rights activists represents the closure of space for the indigenous communities to exercise their rights.

“The violence and the closure of space is the response of the government of Otto Pérez Molina, to protect personal interests, and the interests of businesses,” wrote Convergence for Human Rights in their statement to the press. “Indigenous communities who exercise their constitutional rights to petition and to consultation are met with racist and repressive responses.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights, social movements, and issues related to education, immigration, and land in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala. His work has appeared at Truthout, Waging Nonviolence, and North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo

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