Guatemalan Indigenous Communities Resist Mega Cement Factory Despite Military Occupation

The residents of Santa Fe Ocaña, and the other Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have lived under a semi-permanent state of exception since September 2014. The order was reportedly lifted on October 31, but the police and military remained, forming permanent encampments in the towns of Pajoques and Santa Fe Ocaña.

(Photo: Sign states, “We need more teachers, not military brigades.”)

“No to this military and police encampment,” someone hastily scrawled in large white letters on the back of a sign welcoming visitors to the Kaqchikel community of Santa Fe Ocaña, a community in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, and one of the 12 communities in resistance to the construction of a mega-cement factory. The sign stood next to one of the many command tents of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police at the height of the state of exception and sums up the general feeling of the residents in this small hamlet, about an hour and a half from Guatemala City.

The residents of Santa Fe Ocaña, and the other Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have lived under a semi-permanent state of exception since September 2014, when the Guatemalan government declared a state of exception in the communities following a night of violence that led to the deaths of 11 community members in small town of Pajoques. The order was reportedly lifted on October 31, but the police and military remained, forming permanent encampments in the towns of Pajoques and Santa Fe Ocaña. The Guatemalan military also established a new military task force: Task Force San Juan Sacatepéquez.

“The state of exception is taking a toll on the people,” said Ramona Lopéz, a member of the community in resistance from Santa Fe Ocaña. “What kind of security is this when the government is providing security for only the workers and the business. Their security means insecurity for us. There are many innocent people who still have orders for arrest.”

And this presence of State forces has taken a toll; it has almost led to the end of the resistance of the 12 Kaqchikel Communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez to the construction of one of the largest cement factories in Central America.

Shortly after the “lifting” of the state of exception, representatives from the resistance secretly began negotiating with the cement company on ending the resistance. On January 6, 2015 the community leaders and the company signed a peace agreement, ending the resistance of the 12 Kaqchikel communities to the construction of the largest cement factory in Central America. In return for ending the resistance, the communities would receive various development projects from various Non-governmental organizations, and the company’s social responsibility organization, The Carlos F. Novella Foundation.

But this decision was made without the consultation of members of the resistance, and on July 29, communities announced that they were re-committing their resistance to the construction of the cement factory. Representatives gathered in Guatemala City to hold a press conference to denounce their former leaders by name for betraying their communities.

“These people have turned their backs to our struggle,” said Edgar, one of the representatives of the communities in resistance. “We want to stress that they do not represent the communities, and we were unaware of any decisions that they were making in the name of the communities in resistance of San Juan Sacatepéquez.”

The communities added “We do not recognize the ‘Framework for the Peace and Development of the 12 Communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez.’”

“We’ve come to announce that we have reaffirmed our commitment to the struggle,” said Maria, one of the representatives of the communities.

As of writing this article, 9 of the original 12 Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have rejoined the resistance to the construction of the Cementos Progreso factory. But according to Daniel Pascual of the United Campesino Committee (CUC), it doesn’t necessarily fall just along community lines.

“It is a little more complex,” said Pascual. “Some communities are fully re-committed to the defense of territory, while in others there are maybe 20-30 families that have re-committed to the struggle.”

Between Flowers and Cement

Since 2007, the 12 Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have maintained a resistance to the construction of the San Gabriel cement factory. Cementos Progreso, and the Novella family, one of the most powerful members of the Guatemalan oligarchy, owns the cement plant.

The plant is reportedly one of the largest cement factories in Latin America and the largest in Central America. It will produce nearly 2.4 million tons of cement annually. The project also includes permits to exploit mineral resources in the region which include gold and silver deposits.

In a now removed interview with Guatemalan Magazine Contra Poder, Vice President of Planning and Financing, José Raúl González, told the magazine that the cement produced at the plant is all destined for the internal market, due to the increased demand. What he didn’t tell the reporter was that this increased demand comes from the massive expansion of infrastructure projects, such as hydroelectric dams and highways, which have exploded since the signing of the peace accords in 1996, ending 36 years of internal armed conflict that caused over 200,000 deaths and disappeared over 40,000.

The communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez began organizing their resistance to the project shortly after the announcements of plans to build the factory. They fear that the factory will lead to destruction of the environment, including the contamination of their water, and that the factory will negatively impact their prized flower industry.

In 2007, the communities held a community wide referendum in accordance with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Overwhelmingly residents rejected the project.

Since then they have suffered violent repression from State forces such as military and Police, as well as paramilitary groups sponsored by the company. The conflict has led to the 2 states of exception in 2009 and 2014, when government has suspended the constitution, and deployed the military.

The conflict has led to 7 political prisoners, including Abelardo Curup who was charged with terrorism, and sentenced to 150 years in prison.

In the last few years, the community of Pajoques has been the site of conflict over the construction of an access road to the San Gabriel plant. Community members have refused to sell their land to the company for the construction of the road.

Continued Intimidation Against Community In Resistance

The resistance mostly disappeared from the public eye following the official lifting of the state of exception and as the negotiations began between the former community leaders and the company. But following the quiet organizing by community members, and the rejection of their leaders, they slowly began to re-emerge as a movement during the protests against the administration of Otto Pérez Molina and against corruption. 
On May 16, a small contingent of the resistance marched under the banner “Communities in Resistance of San Juan Sacatepéquez.” The communities further joined the Popular and Social Assemblies, a platform that emerged following the initial protests against corruption. The communities have since participated in nearly demonstration.

But this return to the public eye has also brought with it the renewal of repression against the communities by state organizations.

On June 13, a bus of women and children from San Juan Sacatepéquez was returning to the community following one of the demonstrations against corruption in Guatemala’s Constitutional Plaza in Guatemala City, when the Guatemalan National Police, including riot police, stopped the bus.  The women and their children were forced off the bus on along a busy highway, and held in side the bus along side the highway for 5 hours as the police searched the bus.

The police claimed that they were searching for someone who had an order for arrest. No one was detained, and the bus was allowed to leave, but not before the women and children on board suffered psychologically from the incident.

Just a month later, on July 19, police and military stopped another bus of women from the community traveling from a Catholic Mass in Tejar, Chimaltenango to Pajoques, not once, but twice. At each stop, the police and military made the women get off the bus and have their photos taken and took each of their names. 
“The (Police and Military) directly violated the rights of the women of Pajoques,” said Sergio Beltetón, CUC’s Lawyer.

The repression against the communities in resistance has continued.

On September 22, Guatemalan National Police arrested Rigoberto Patzan, a resident of Pajoques, as he left his house at 5:30am. Patzan was beaten by police prior to his incarceration. He is being accused of murder for his alleged participation in the violence on September 19 and 20, 2014. It is worth noting that he was arrested over a year after the incident. Patzan becomes the 7th political prisoner from the conflict over the construction of the San Gabriel Cement Plant.

The Permanent State of Exception and The Modern Counter-Insurgency

Officially the state of exception ended on October 31, 2014 after 40 days. But now it has been well over a year since the Ministry of the Interior the declared the state of exception, and the military and police still remain in Santa Fe Ocaña and Pajoques.

“We were originally told that they were going to be here for 72 hours,” said one community member from Santa Fe Ocaña, in October 2014. “Then they announced it was going to be for 15 days, and now for 15 more days.” 
Community members have claimed that the soldiers have continued to intimidate the communities and harass women in the community.

Representatives from the communities, along side lawyers from the CUC, have attempted to request that the military leave the communities. But were met by riot police as the attempted to walk up the hill to the military encampment above Pajoques.

“We traveled to the Pajoques to request a dialogue with the commander of the encampment, the Minister of defense, and the Ministry of the Interior,” said Beltetón. “Nearly every resident of the community had signed a request demanding that the encampment leave the community. For them, the encampment is not giving them security, but rather insecurity.”

He added, “We are not in times of war, and the state of exception was already ended; but in the communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, and especially the communities of Pajoques and Santa Fe Ocaña, there continues to be a climate of armed occupation by the military.”

The military has been deployed to the communities to guarantee the company continues their mega-project without resistance. In this sense, the Guatemalan government and the company set out to break the social movement. Leaders were co-opted, and regions were promised “development projects” in return for the ending of the resistance, which led to the signing of “peace accords” between the now ex-leaders and the company, in November 2014.

The dreaded and infamous Kabiles, special commandos, trained by the United States in counter-insurgency, were among those deployed during the state of exception in September 2014. Their deployment represents how the government of Guatemala views the social movement in San Juan Sacatepéquez; to the government and the company, it is an insurgency, and the residents are the internal enemy.

These modern counterinsurgency tactics still follow Washington’s playbook, which recommends the use of Non-Governmental Organizations to counter insurgencies by providing communities with resources.

The tactics have included the creation of division in the community, and the coopting of leaders.

“The company says that they are bringing development,” said another resident, who wanted to remain anonymous. “But they are only bringing division. We don’t want this type of development; we want to live in peace.”

The Guatemalan military received substantial training from the United States in counter-insurgency tactics during Guatemala’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict. Today, these same tactics are once again being used against indigenous communities that resist the expansion of mega-projects.

“This is what (Otto) Pérez Molina and (Mauricio) López Bonilla did during the war,” said Pascual. “And this is what the attempted to do in San Juan Sacatepéquez. They tried to create the conditions for violence as an excuse to deploy the military.”

The communities have paid dearly for their resistance, which researchers, such as Gladys Tzul Tzul, a Guatemalan Sociologist from Totonicapan, who is currently at The Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico, have claimed this is one of the most important struggles currently in Guatemala, due to the connection of the cement factory to all other development projects in the country. But the renewal of their struggle brings hope that the communities will continue to challenge the imposing of the project on the communities.

“We will continue to defend our rights,” said Lopéz. “And we will continue to defend our land and the mother earth.”

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