It is ironic that while Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean was replacing the white rose to commemorate 24 hours of “peace” in Guatemala inside the country’s Constitutional Palace, 150 National Civil Police agents were outside violently evicting workers from their make-shift homes in the Central Plaza. It is ironic that while Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean was replacing the white rose to commemorate 24 hours of “peace” in Guatemala inside the country’s Constitutional Palace, 150 National Civil Police agents were outside violently evicting the SITRAPETEN workers from their make-shift homes in the Central Plaza. Employees of the Peten Distributors Workers´ Union (SITRAPETEN) – distributors of Agua Salvavida – were fired after creating the SITRAPETEN union in May 2008 and have been occupying the Central Plaza since September 2008 as a form of peaceful protest to demand that their labour rights be respected.
The International Human Rights Accompaniment Project in Guatemala (ACOGUATE) has been accompanying the workers ever since and according to their blog, the workers have “been subjected to attempts to bribe them to leave the union. In February this year, there was a court order for their reinstatement. To date, the order has not been respected.” Workers have not received any payment since they were illegally fired over a year and a half ago.
When Mexico’s TV Azteca announced that it would be bringing “La Academia” (The Academy, a Mexican version of American Idol) to Guatemala for a live performance on December 13, Alvaro Arzu’s municipal government decided to clean up the streets and get rid of the strikers who set up shelters made out of laminate, covered with banners and demanded justice. The strikers had legal permission to be there and were carrying out their constitutional right to peaceful resistance.
“That’s what I told them [the police]. When a businessman comes to have an event and all of this [the protest] is about to come to light, now you come to evict us. It’s simply for this reason,” expressed Edwin Enrique Álvarez Guevara, Secretary General of the Union, in an interview moments before the police started moving in on the SITRAPETEN workers.
Arzu is the famed “President of Peace” who signed the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, ending 36 years of civil war in the country. There are allegations that he has been trying to get the workers out of the plaza for months by giving them a bad name through print media and television reports. It is believed that the request to evict the workers from the plaza came directly from Arzu’s office.
On the night of December 9, a municipal judge and various police officers tried to evict the SITRAPETEN strikers. Nonetheless, the workers were aware of their rights and subsequently demanded that they be respected. As such, they were able to hold off the eviction until the next day when members of popular and civil society organizations rallied to show support around noon. Legally, evictions must be carried out between 6 a.m. to 6p.m.
In the hour and a half that ensued, the anti-riot squad circled the park while other officers advanced toward the 15 or so workers who were
doing everything they could to protect themselves and their belongings from being destroyed. As the non-armed workers and supporters gathered
around the final standing structure arm-in-arm in defense yelling, “JUSTICE!” police officials shot tear gas and other toxic substances, forcing many to leave to seek medical attention.
Despite the interventions of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) and the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (COPREDEH), the police, armed with automatic assault riffles and dozens of canisters of tear gas and other highly toxic agents, carried out the violent eviction without the legal order of the Presiding Judge that led to at least three people injured.
According to a press release by the Human Rights Convergence, members of SITRAPETEN were, “violently evicted with a disproportionate use of
force by members of the National Civil Police (PNC) accompanied by Municipal Traffic Police (PMT) who, with their trucks, took not only the precarious shelters that they have upkept, but also all their personal belongings.”
Following the eviction, the SITRAPETEN workers stayed on site, while supporters gathered around. Hours later, around 11:30pm, following a Christmas gala hosted by the President’s wife inside the Constitutional Palace, police agents returned and once again proceeded to carry out another illegal eviction, using tear gas to expel the union workers and once again confiscating all of their possessions. SITRAPETEN workers have relocated in front of the Cathedral in the plaza and have denounced the illegal actions taken against them to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and office of the Human Rights Ombudsman.
Given the fact that SITRAPETEN’s battle is with one of Guatemala’s richest families, the Castillo family, and its Castillo Brothers Corporation which is a holding of 82 companies primarily focused on food and beverage and entertainment, it is not surprising that little has been reported in the local printed press. Almost no coverage has been given to the strikers since May 2008 and much of what has been covered are misleading reports about illegal invaders.
Meanwhile, on her last day in Guatemala, the Governor General’s first visit this morning was with Mayor Alvaro Arzu, where Michaëlle Jean was presented the “Keys of the City” in a ceremony closed to the press. La Academia will go ahead as planned on Sunday.
Her Excellency finished her tour of the region following her visit to Costa Rica on December 15.
For a backgrounder in English:
For ACOGUATE reports see: