Across Latin America, governments criminalize social movements to silence dissent

Source: Waging Nonviolence

Below the Tribunal Towers in Guatemala City, within the first level of the parking garage, are the cells where those accused of crimes are held prior to court hearings. At the gate to one of the cells stands Rigoberto Juarez, a 62-year-old Maya Q’anjab’al, indigenous authority and spiritual guide from Santa Eulalia in the department of Huehuetenango. At his side stands Domingo Baltazar, another community leader from Santa Eulalia. The two don’t look like the other prisoners in the holding cell, but the two have been accused of committing horrible crimes for the leadership in their community’s struggle against the transnational companies seeking to construct hydroelectric dams in their communities.

“For 10 months we have been incarcerated without any evidence,” Juarez said, following a hearing in January 2016. “I believe that the Public Ministry is trying to draw out this process because, in the last 10 months, they have been unable to provide any evidence against us. It is absolutely unjust.”

Both Juarez and Baltazar face a laundry list of charges, including: abduction or kidnapping, aggravated assault, instigation to commit a crime, and obstruction of prosecution, as well as clearly false charges for the murder of two men on January 19, 2015, which all witnesses state was carried out by a vehicle associated with the former mayor of Santa Eulalia. As Juarez points out, no evidence has been presented against them.

The story of criminalization reflects the lengths that the Guatemalan government will go to guarantee that these leaders remain in prison. Both Juarez and Baltazar were arrested in Guatemala City on March 24, 2015 as they walked down the street in Guatemala City’s historic center. Two days later a judge released both Juarez and Baltazar to house arrest pending an investigation by the Guatemalan Public Ministry. But as they left the courthouse, they were arrested on new charges.

Since 2007, Juarez, Baltazar and their communities of northern Huehuetenango have maintained their resistance to the construction of hydroenergy by transnational companies in their region. That year, 46,481 residents participated in a consultation over the expansion of hydro projects. By the end of the vote, 46,472 had declared their opposition to the construction of any mining or hydro project.

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