A Labyrinth of Injustice in Guatemala: Indigenous Activists Struggle Against Dispossession of Land and Rights

Family, friends and supporters of Saúl Méndez and Rogelio Velásquez, two political prisoners who had been falsely accused of femicide, kidnapping, and murder, received some joyous news on January 14, 2016; after three years in prison, they were released. However, six other prominent activists from northern Huehuetenango still face prosecution for their resistance to hydroelectric projects imposed in their territory by transnational corporations.


Photo of Guatemalan activist Lopez Reyes (Don Taño) by Nelton Rivera.

Family, friends and supporters of Saúl Méndez and Rogelio Velásquez, two political prisoners who had been falsely accused of femicide, kidnapping, and murder, received some joyous news on January 14, 2016. As Guatemala followed the inauguration of Jimmy Morales as president, Méndez and Velásquez, after three years in prison, were released. But as the communities of northern Huehuetenango celebrate the liberation of two of their leaders, six other prominent activists from the region continued to face prosecution for their resistance to hydroelectric projects imposed in their territory by transnational corporations.

Since 2007, the communities along the Cambalam River in the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas have been organizing against the construction of any mega-projects including hydroelectric and mining. Over 46,000 people participated in a municipal-wide consultation on the projects, with residents overwhelmingly rejecting any projects.

Despite this popular announcement of resistance to any large scale projects, Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mining in 2009 approved the construction of the Santa Cruz Barillas hydroelectric dam owned by the Spanish corporation Ecoener Hydro Energy, The community has maintained that they would resist the construction of this project. However, they have faced historic levels of repression for their stance, while their leadership is criminalized.

The trials against the other six leaders continued on January 15, but included severe irregularities. The first hearing for Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo and Francisco Juan was set for January 15, but it was suspended when the lawyers from the company failed to appear. The next hearing against Rigoberto Juarez and Domingo Baltazar could not advance due to a failure of the court to provide a qualified translator for the indigenous leaders. Finally, on January 22 the hearing for Hermit Bernardo Lopez Reyes, a 55-years-old campesino from Santa Cruz Barillas, was suspended because the Guatemalan National Police “could not locate the prisoner for transfer” to the court house in Huehuetenango.

The case against Lopez Reyes, who is known as Don Taño, is symbolic of the criminalization that has occurred in the conflict over the construction of the Santa Cruz hydro-electric project.

Don Taño was arrested on June 2, 2015, while he attended the hearing for three other community leaders from Barillas. He is charged with abduction or kidnapping, aggravated assault, instigation to commit a crime, and obstruction of prosecution. He has only appeared before a judge once since his arrest; all six other hearings have been suspended for some reason or another. This has become increasingly frustrating for Don Taño’s family.

“We feel impotent,” said Albertino Rocal Lopez Reyes, Don Taño’s brother, who traveled along with Don Taño’s wife nearly 12 hours to the hearing. “We are indignant with this failure of the Police to transfer my brother to the hearing.”

He adds, ”There is no such thing as justice for the campesino in our country. These companies arrive and break the law, and we are the ones that pay.”

Don Taño’s case is made a bit more complicated by another factor: he is a citizen of the United States of America.

From Refugee to Political Prisoner

Don Taño’s story reflects the tragic history of Guatemala.

The dirty war arrived in Barillas in the early 1980’s, and eventually Don Taño and his family were forced to leave their homes due to the violence.

“We were caught between the guerrillas who were threatening us on one end, and the military, who were massacring us, on the other,” remembers Taño’s brother. “The military murdered two of my relatives; my aunt and my uncle. We had to seek refuge in the US. We were there nearly 33 years.”

Northern Huehuetenango saw some of the gravest human rights violations during the internal armed conflict. Here the Guatemalan military carried out a counterinsurgency that bordered on genocide. Entire indigenous villages were labeled as insurgent, similar to the tactics that were carried out in the Ixil Triangle of the central highlands during the 1980s. Thousands were killed as part of this campaign of terror that fell upon the Q’anjab’al communities. Over 300 people were killed in Santa Cruz Barillas alone.

The Reyes family found refuge in Los Angeles, where they rebuilt their lives. In 1987, the family received US citizenship as part of Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform. Don Taño and his brothers and sisters would spend the next 30 years living between Guatemala and the United States in order to support their family.

In 2013, Don Taño made the tough decision to move back to Barillas to struggle with his community against the construction of the hydroelectric project.

By all accounts, he was highly respected on both sides of the conflict. He was widely considered to be the intermediary between the resistance, the police and company. But despite this, he was still described in the company’s reports as part of the “criminal network” of northern Huehuetenango.

His family has faced intimidation and hardship since his arrest. In June 2015, just weeks after his incarceration, the family home in Barillas was burned to the ground in an apparent arson.

His lawyers and family began a campaign to inform the United States Embassy in Guatemala City of his citizenship following his arrest on false charges. Yet there has been little the embassy has been able to do for him, other than to guarantee that he is not being abused in prison.

The family has maintained pressure from both Guatemala and from the United States for the release of Don Taño. In January 2016, supporters in Los Angeles held a rally in support of Don Taño, demanding his immediate release.

But despite this and similar actions, he has remained in prison.

Criminalization Campaign

The conflict over the expansion of energy production in Guatemala has been among the worst in the years since the signing of the 1996 peace accord. At the core of these conflicts is the right of the indigenous communities to their territory, and their right to previous consultation prior to the imposing of private development projects by corporations, including firms such as Ecoener Hydro Energy from Spain, and firms from Israel and Italy. The expansion of energy production has also attracted interest by companies such as Duke Energy from the United States, which has invested in three oil plants in Guatemala.

But these conflicts also occur at a time when the Inter-American Development bank and the Guatemalan government have reiterated its call for the doubling of Guatemala’s energy production capabilities by the year 2027. At the same time, Guatemala is further integrating its energy systems with  the rest of Central America as part of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System, which came about through the expansion of the Plan Mesoamerica.  The plan was originally known as Plan Puebla-Panama, and called for the integration of the infrastructure of Mesoamerica. In 2006, the plan was renamed, and launched alongside the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

This expansion has brought about the modern growth of hydro-electrical production, as well as geothermal production, which has resulted in the return of social conflict to indigenous communities. And this expansion continues at any cost; it has led to the criminalization of the communities that resist the expansion of energy production by companies such as Ecoener Hydro Energy.

“They have imprisoned me for my defense of life,” Don Taño declared in his one and only hearing. “That is the only crime that I’ve committed, and that is the crime that they are imprisoning the community leaders [for], for the defense of the water, and of nature.”

The communities have organized to defend their land from the imposing of these projects in their communities. The indigenous Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Popti, Akateka and Mestizo communities of northern Huehuetenango, which have organized a system of self-governance called the Plural-national government, and have demanded that the state comply with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, and consult the communities prior to the imposing of the projects. Yet the companies have claimed that there are no indigenous communities in the region affected, despite the widely recognized presence of communities that are 93-95 percent indigenous.

To make matters worse, in May 2014 the company and the Guatemalan Public Ministry issued a report entitled “The Criminal Structure of Huehuetenango,” which classified the social movement as a criminal organization. This report maps the association of the members of the movement with Rigoberto Juarez, a respected community leader and member of the indigenous ancestral authority, as the kingpin of the “criminal organization.”

The report also includes others, including Don Taño and additional political prisoners, as members of the criminal network. This campaign of disinformation and criminalization has nearly guaranteed that the political prisoners cannot have a fair trial.

“We have been imprisoned for more than 10 months, and they have failed to show that we committed the crimes they say we committed,” said Rigoberto Juarez, following his hearing on January 18 of this year. “There are political and economic interests behind the extraction of natural resources in our department. They are the reasons why we are incarcerated. We are only trying to defend our rights and life.”

He adds, “We are trying to protect the water in our department. There are no owners of the water, the sacred water. They are trying to privatize the sacred water.”

This classification of the movements as a criminal organization also allows the Guatemalan government to utilize the military against the movement. (The military itself was given the ability to assist the Guatemalan National Civilian Police with combatting organized crime in 2000 by the administration of Alfonso Portillo.) In 2012, the now notorious Otto Pérez Molina, who himself was forced to resign following accusation of corruption, declared a State of Siege in Barillas following a conflict between the community and the company, in which three leaders from the community were attacked by armed security guards from the hydro project.

The military has remained in the region since then, forming a new military base in this once demilitarized zone.

The people’s movement for the defense of territory in northern Huehuetenango has seen intimidation by paramilitary groups as well. The situation has led to the reactivation of the dreaded Civilian Self-Defense Patrols, paramilitary groups that were formed by the Guatemalan military during the counterinsurgency of the 1980s, which were responsible for many human rights violations.

The criminalization of leaders like Don Taño, Rigoberto Juarez, and the others, has become all too common in the years since the signing of the peace accords. The expansion of mining, energy generation projects, and mono-cultures have led to the deepening of conflicts over land, a resource which has historically been concentrated into the hands of a small minority.

It is this battle over land that contributed to the beginning of the 36-year-long internal armed conflict, following the CIA orchestrated coup against President Jacobo Arbenz, who had begun land reform in 1953. The reform expropriated unused land from the largest land owners, including the US-based United Fruit Company.

The 1996 peace accords recognized the indigenous people’s rights to land, and identity, and began to try to solve the question of land. But at the same time as the signing of the peace accords, a renewed dispossession of indigenous lands by transnational corporations began.

A Joyous Homecoming

As the trials against the community leaders from northern Huehuetenango remain at a standstill, former political prisoners Méndez and Velásquez returned home to Santa Cruz Barillas after nearly three years of being falsely incarcerated. In November 2015, the two had been acquitted of charges of femicide. Two months later they were finally released.

On January 23 of this year, a caravan of supporters and family accompanied the two community leaders to Santa Cruz Barillas, where they were met with a celebration welcoming them home.

In their speech to the community upon their return, the community leaders squarely placed the blame on their incarceration on the transnational company operating in their territory.

“Thank God that we were able to get our freedom, and that we have one more chance,” said Méndez in his speech . “I also want to make it clear to all those who have falsely accused us, and especially to the company Hidro Santa Cruz, which has brought so much of the persecution of us, that what happens to us from now on, they will be the ones responsible.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, and the North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo