Guatemala Solidarity Project Annual Report: Historic Victories, but the Genocide Continues
Oxib’ E (Mayan Calendar Year, February 21, 2015 – February 20, 2016)
The year Oxib’ E was a historic year in Guatemala as our partners played a lead role in winning victories that have not been achieved in the United States or most of the world. Sustained protests and courageous prosecutors brought a President to prison; former slaves forced into sexual servitude faced down their violators and successfully achieved a landmark conviction; indigenous communities united to block roads and prevent the government from burning down villages; and local, national and international pressure combined to win freedom for political prisoners.
The most recognized victory of this past year was the arrest of then-President Otto Perez Molina in September of 2015, who was the most powerful of a large number of government officials who were arrested during the year Oxib’ E. There is no doubt that these are substantial victories that should be celebrated. They inspire us to continue moving forward and give us hope that seemingly impossible goals can be achieved, such as recognition of the land rights of Guatemala’s indigenous majority and the arrest of US officials for crimes against humanity.
Yet these victories did not stop the systemic racism and environmental destruction that is occurring in Guatemala. We fear that in many cases the arrests are being used as scapegoats and distractions so that those in power can continue exploiting indigenous communities. Recently released government statistics (ENCOVI 2014) show that between 2006 and 2015, the percentage of the population living in poverty grew from 51.2 to 59.3 percent and extreme poverty from 15.8 to 23.4 percent. Guatemala is one of the few countries in the world that has seen an increase in poverty since the United Nations announced in 2000 its Millennium Development Goals, which included cutting worldwide extreme poverty in half by 2015. At the same time that hunger and poverty are on the rise, environmental destruction is also increasing as multinational corporations and a small Guatemalan elite make enormous profits from the exploitation of Mother Nature.
Please make a financial contribution of any size to support our partners in their struggle for social and environmental justice. Your entire donation will go to our partners in Guatemala. We are a volunteer run organization and none of your donations will be used for administrative costs. Donations are also tax deductible in the US. There is a great need for one-time contributions, but we greatly encourage you to sign up to make a small monthly donation, as this helps us keep our monthly commitments with partners, including supporting political prisoners, individuals injured by government security forces while defending their land and children of community leaders killed by government violence. To make a donation, please visit our website.
Below is a monthly list of some of the events of the year Oxib’ E, focusing on the work of the GSP and the achievements of our partners:
February 2015: Occupy, Recuperate and Defend Mother Earth!
On February 26, dozens of brave leaders of the community Bella Flor in the Polochic Valley nonviolently occupied land from which they had been violently evicted in 2011. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in the community’s favor after the evictions, but the Guatemalan government continues to refuse to recognize their rights and has not implemented the humanitarian measures ordered by the Court. After years of continued repression and negotiations with a dishonest government, the community decided to squat on the land and risk facing greater violence.
Desperate hunger, extreme poverty and knowledge of their rights also forced GSP partner communities Rio Frio, Parana, San Miguel Cotoxja, El Rodeo and Rio Polochic II to reoccupy stolen lands. After the 2011 attack much of this land was used to grow sugarcane and African palm. These crops are grown not for food but for ethanol production, so the land that has historically fed the 900 Mayan families living there is now being used to fill gas tanks in foreign countries, while the people on the land confront starvation on a daily basis. The GSP is coordinating with these communities to demand recognition of their land rights.
March 2015: GSP Collaboration Helps Win Freedom for Mariano Caal
On March 27, 2015, Mariano Caal Coc was arrested despite committing no crime. The 22 year old’s only “crime” was being an indigenous peasant. Caal is from the community Nimla Sa’chal near Coban, Alta Verapaz. Wealthy “land owner” Saul Girón Zúñiga has been trying to consolidate his wealth by stealing land from the community, and he has the support of the corrupt public attorney’s office. Just like many of our partner communities, community members of Nimla Sa’chal live with the permanent terror of being arrested at any moment – while going to sell or buy food at the market, going to visit family, or like Mariano, going to work.
Fortunately our allies were able to immediately mobilize legal action in order to push for Mariano’s release. This would not have happened without the support of approximately $250 from the GSP. Mariano was released March 31.
We thank our donors for making this possible. We are in desperate need for donations to support an emergency fund for cases like this. We have seen that immediate legal action can be effective in winning quick release for political prisoners. When this doesn’t happen, innocent community leaders can spend years in prison while the government adds additional fraudulent charges.
April 2015: Nueva Vida Attacked; Q’eqchi’ Leader Manuel Choc Arrested
In April, q’eqchi’ peasant community Nueva Vida was attacked and burned down by police. Days later q’eqchi’ peasant organizer Manuel Choc was arrested shortly after meeting with government officials about the case. The GSP quickly mobilized to provide Choc with a small monetary support. Prisoners like Manuel need funs while in prison to avoid brutal violence at the hands of other inmates or abusive prison guards and to purchase food to supplement the meager portions they receive. GSP funds and monthly visits also provide emotional support to these courageous, innocent community leaders.
May 2015: Police Jailed for Murders of Indigenous Leaders
A historic ruling on May 16, 2015 sent 18 members of the PNC (National Civil Police) to prison for the murder of three indigenous peasants. The murders occurred in August, 2014 when over 1,000 police attacked GSP partner community Monte Olive and other indigenous communities nearby in northeastern Guatemala.
Monte Olive has successfully organized to prevent the theft of their lands by multinational corporations. The government again chose to use violence to support wealthy criminals. Dozens of homes were burned to the ground, peasant leaders were beaten and arrested, and three were murdered.
Many national and international organizations, including the GSP, denounced the attacks. The pressure helped lead to the imprisonment of 18 members of the police force. The historic ruling had an enormous impact as many police later refused to participate in additional attacks against indigenous peasant communities for fear of being held accountable for their illegal actions.
June 2015: GSP Solidarity Delegation: Indigenous Rights Versus Terrorism and Environmental Destruction
The complete reports from the delegation is available on our website. From the introduction:
“From May 25 to June 4, a group of human rights activists from the United States, England and Colombia participated in a solidarity delegation organized by the Guatemala Solidarity Project. We were horrified to see that the government and capital interests are systematically using violence and judicial persecution to steal land from indigenous communities. Their goal is to exploit the natural resources and cheap labor of Guatemala, destroying rivers and local ecosystems in the process and leaving indigenous peasants with hunger and poverty.
We were inspired by the hopeful, creative and resilient organizing taking place in the communities we visited. We repeatedly met with people who are refusing to allow their lands to be stolen or their rivers and mountains to be destroyed.”
July 2015: Martin Pec Denied Surgery
Martin Pec is a highly respected community leader from Parana, one of the Polochic Valley communities attacked and evicted by the Guatemalan military in March of 2011. After the attacks his community built small huts by the side of the road close to where they used to live. They no longer had land to grow crops and were suffering from extreme hunger. Pec and other q’eqchi’ leaders organized with other communities in the area to denounce the government’s violence and theft of their lands.
In the middle of the night of August 9, 2011, dozens of heavily armed masked men attacked the community. They burned down homes, clothes and harvested corn. Three community members were shot, including an 8 year old girl. Pec was shot in the stomach and brought to an intensive care hospital unit. Instead of being given quality care, he was arrested on false charges while in his hospital bed and transferred to jail. He was released from jail weeks later, but not given quality health care. Years later Pec has little energy, needs to use a colostomy bag and is still trying to access a doctor.
The GSP has met with hospital officials in Coban, and numerous other organizations have demanded that he be treated. In July Pec expected to finally be treated, but once again the hospital denied him care. We will continue to stand with Pec and pressure the hospital and government. Please look for further action alerts about his case in the coming months.
August 2015: Q’eqchi’ Leader Timoteo Chen Tun Released from Prison
Thanks in part to GSP’s supporters who took action, former political prisoner Timoteo Chen was released in August after spending over a year in jail. Chen had been charged with murder even though there were dozens of witnesses and even photographic evidence that he was not at the scene of the crime. Chen’s real “crime” is being an environmental and indigenous rights activist.
Chen was arrested in April 2014 while participating in a healthcare workshop. Chen was one of the few healthcare providers in the impoverished indigenous q’eqchi’ region he is from. His unjust incarceration had a negative impact on the region’s health. It was also marked by repeated delays on technicalities by the prosecution, a strategy that successfully kept him suffering in jail for over a year despite a total lack of evidence that he had committed any crime.
The GSP visited Chen in prison at least once a month, supporting him by purchasing food, shoes, and other basic necessities. We organized petition and call-in campaigns to pressure for his release. Chen, his family, the indigenous peasant movement and our organization are all joyous that he is no longer behind bars. However the government quickly reacted to his release by inventing new charges against him and issuing an order for his arrest. Chen remains out of jail but faces future hearings. We ask you to monitor our website as we will be calling for further action in solidarity with Chen in the coming months.
September: President Otto Perez Molina Arrested
On September 3, General Perez was arrested in an historic victory of the people of Guatemala. The arrest followed sustained nonviolent protests that began in April. Students, unions, peasants and other people of conscience took to the streets and caused the Vice President and numerous cabinet members to step down. Our partner organizations and communities played a lead role in these mobilizations.
While this represented an enormous accomplishment for Guatemala’s emerging peaceful civil society, it will ultimately mean nothing if further advances aren’t made. The GSP has been calling for Perez’s arrest since before he even became President in 2012. General Perez directly ordered the torture and assassination of indigenous Guatemalan civilians beginning in the 1980s. According to court testimony, his order was “Indian seen, Indian killed.” It is telling that Perez is not in prison for torture, murder, or genocide. Instead he was arrested for corruption. Perez is now the second of the last four Guatemalan Presidents (along with Alfonso Portillo, who fled the country the same day he left office but was eventually arrested and spent 6 years in federal prison in the U.S. In a demonstration of how little has changed in Guatemala, Portillo ran for office and will return to Congress for the 2016 session.) Government corruption is a huge problem that must be dealt with and these arrests appear to be a step forward in this fight. But an even bigger problem is the lack of fundamental structural changes – like those mapped out in the 1996 Peace Accords, signed by this Otto Perez as a military leader and ignored by him as President. Celebration is difficult as long as Guatemala’s Presidents continue to get away with massacring indigenous civilians.
The most important fact to keep in mind is that he was but a role player in the militarized socioeconomic structure designed to pillage Guatemala’s majority indigenous population and vast natural resources. Despite his arrest, this structure remains very much intact. Guatemala’s exaggeratedly corrupt Congress voted 132-0 to allow the President’s arrest. Even CACIF, Guatemala’s powerful and influential chamber of commerce, supported the vote. CACIF and Guatemala’s Congress are key supporters of the country’s genocidal repression and environmental destruction. They backed Perez’s arrest because they knew five centuries of genocide can continue with or without a man who had been President for less than four years.
In January Jimmy Morales, a professional comedian (Google “Nito and Neto” Jimmy is Neto) and business owner, became the new president. After losing a mayoral race in 2011 in his first venture into politics, Morales was asked by the founders of the party National Convergence Front to be their presidential candidate. Morales was seen by these founders as a great representative since he is a well-known, fresh face and political outsider. His campaign slogan was “Not corrupt, not a thief.” Of course, the people behind the candidate represent the same historically oppressive military and economic interests – the FCN was founded by retired military officers led by Edgar Justino Ovalle (School of the Americas graduate, 1973) who was a prominent intelligence officer and worked alongside Otto Perez in the Ixil region from 1981-1982, at the height of the genocide and also was a commander at the military base in Coban while that base was used as a dumping ground for thousands of murdered peasants. Even while exhumations are ongoing on the Coban base, Ovalle is now immune from prosecution as the FCN’s lead member of congress.
Other than being the official representative of an extreme right-wing military party, Morales is no military novice. While the racist comedian likes to play the part of humble man of the people, he has a master’s degree in security and defense from the private, conservative Mariano Gálvez University and a doctorate in strategic security from the public University of Guatemala San Carlos. So despite his image as comedian and political novice, he is an expert in military issues and well-connected to the most powerful forces in the Guatemalan military who collaborate with national and international economic actors to insure that Guatemala’s riches remain in their control.
Morales also says that dictator Efrain Rios Montt and other military officials did not commit acts of genocide. While the GSP and many others know that today the Guatemalan government continues to act out over 500 years of genocide, even conservative groups like the Catholic Church and the United Nations have concluded that the Guatemalan military committed acts of genocide in the 1970s and 1980s.
Our partners in Guatemala have made it clear to us that under President Morales they expect an acceleration of current government policies of large-scale theft of indigenous lands, friendly terms for multinational, monoculture and extraction-based companies, arrests of community leaders and the destruction of entire indigenous communities.
October 2015: Attack Against Xinca Community in Xalapan
On October 7, hundreds of police and soldiers violently evicted the people of Lasareto, a Xinca village of 160 families located in Santa Maria Xalapan, Jalapa, Guatemala. GSP representatives and activists from CUC – the Committee of Peasant Unity – visited Jalapa to provide material and emotional support to the victims. Observers estimate over 1000 police and army soldiers entered the community with eviction orders signed by local judges in favor of non-Xinca wealthy landowners.
Ten community members were arrested on falsified charges of stealing land. These 10 and numerous other community members were beaten and threatened with further violence. Lasareto community members have been given refuge among the other 144 Xinca villages that make up Santa Maria Xalapan.
For centuries the Xinca have suffered genocidal violence and the imposition of a land rights system designed to destroy indigenous culture and separate them from their historic lands. Xinca communities, like other indigenous communities all over Guatemala, are continuing to face oppression and violence at the hands of multinational extraction companies. The permissive government supports those companies wholeheartedly, including overlooking the atrocities committed by their private security forces.
The Xinca of Santa Maria Xalapan are actively opposing the Escobar silver mine, which was established in nearby San Rafael in 2014 and is already the third largest silver mine in the world, with over 20 million ounces extracted its first year of operations. The mine is owned by US and Canada based Tahoe Resources, which expects to take out over 350 million ounces of silver in addition to gold, lead and other minerals.
Powerful military, economic and political interests have rarely been challenged in Jalapa, but Xinca organizing against the silver mine and in defense of their sacred territory is gaining strength and GSP is proud to be a partner in their organizing and supporting their efforts at economic and food independence through the implementation of a series of agricultural projects which focus on intensive ecological practices which include the production of organic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
November 2015: Graduation of Catarina Sanchez
We are joyous to see Catarina Sanchez graduate from her nursing program with the support of GSP donors. Catarina’s mother, indigenous Ixil activist Juana Sanchez, was raped and murdered in 2009. Juana was a leader of the community Sajbuta in Bisan, El Quiche. Juana lost her land and many loved ones during Guatemala’s genocidal civil war. She organized with other indigenous families to petition for the return of their lands as guaranteed under Guatemalan law, but the state never responded. On June 30, 2006, Sanchez helped lead over 200 families to participate in a nonviolent occupation of land claimed by the military. With Sanchez’s support the occupation formed the community of Sajbuta, building a school and refusing to back down in the face of repeated threats.
When Juana was murdered her children were left orphaned. GSP donors stepped up and committed to provide the children with a monthly stipend to help them avoid the chronic malnutrition that plagues the majority of indigenous children in Guatemala.
Community members support each other in profound ways but most families are already struggling with extreme poverty and malnutrition and are not in a position to care for orphaned children. Unfortunately it is all too common for community leaders to be assassinated, and we need your support to be able to stand in solidarity with their families. Catarina’s example of perseverance and hard work despite the heartbreaking (and unpunished) murder of her mother demonstrate the power of international solidarity on a personal level.
December 2015: Manuel Choc Released from Prison
Heroic indigenous peasant leader Manuel Choc Xol was released from prison in December, eight months after being arrested and charged with “stealing land.” Choc is a community organizer who has demanded that the government recognize the basic rights of indigenous Guatemalans. The government attempted to intimidate and silence him with his arrest, but it did not work. The GSP visited Choc at least once a month after his arrest in April, and organized international pressure to help fight for his freedom. Thanks to everyone who participated in our action alerts in solidarity with Manuel Choc.
January 2016: Military Officials Arrested for Genocide
In January we celebrated the historic arrest of 18 high-ranking military officials for crimes against humanity. We have worked closely with activists in Guatemala involved in the exhumation of hundreds of mostly women and children at the military base in Coban. Those arrested ordered the barbaric torture and murder of these and other civilians in the 1980s. They were arrested because of the courageous actions of activists, witnesses, family members of those murdered, lawyers who have a conscience, and other brave women and men who continue to risk their lives by speaking truth to power. The arrests caused shockwaves around the world, and we hope one day people in the United States will also have the courage to stand up and bring high ranking US government officials to prison for crimes against humanity.
While these arrests were an enormous victory, we cannot ignore the fact that the military officials were arrested for crimes which took place twenty years ago, while current government officials continue to systematically violate the rights of indigenous and peasant people in Guatemala today. Of the 18 officials arrested, 12 attended the US Army School of the Americas, a terrorist training camp run by the US Army and currently located in Columbus, Georgia. Despite decades of massive protests, Guatemalan and other foreign military continue to be trained at the SOA today.
February 2016: Soldiers Convicted of Sexual Slavery as Q’eqchi’ Women Accomplish Global First
Two military officials were given lifetime sentences for enslaving women and forcing them into sexual slavery during the 1980s. The details of the case, known as the Sepur Zarco case, were deeply disturbing, including the daily gang rape of indigenous women and the murder of women alongside their children. Yet survivors of these atrocities refused to stay silent. They rose up and risked their lives to demand justice. It took thirty years, but in February they forced the government to convict two of the men who led their enslavement. It was the first time that any national court in the world convicted soldiers for sexual enslavement.
We stand in awe at the courage and resilience of these women. We cannot claim any credit for their amazing accomplishment. Although some members of our network participated in mobilizations supporting their struggle, we did not actively collaborate with their efforts. We have, unfortunately, encountered significant sexual and other forms of violence against women in our partner communities. For example we are currently receiving donations to help with the medical needs of a 15 year old q’eqchi’ girl in one of our partner communities who was recently raped as part of an effort to terrorize the village and steal their land. We know that we will continue to be inspired by indigenous women in Guatemala and ask for your support so that we can continue to act in solidarity with them.
We are looking for experienced activists/organizers to participate in human rights accompaniment and related activities in Guatemala during summer 2016 and beyond. If you are planning on visiting Guatemala and would like to get involved, please contact GSP. We will also continue to send out action alerts so that you can participate in campaigns for justice along with our partners in Guatemala. Please visit our website to join our urgent action list if you are not already on it. We also desperately need your donations in order to support our partners in numerous ways. All donations go to our partners in Guatemala.
In the coming months, the GSP will deliver hundreds of water filters to our partner communities. Our partners requested that we prioritize the purchase of water filters because of the horrific damage being cause by chronic malnutrition, particularly among children. Continued government repression, frequently reaching the level of burning down entire villages and chopping down subsistence crops, is causing increasing starvation in indigenous communities. Much of the small amount of food that families are able to access is often wasted because of water-borne illnesses. Our partners have directed us to Ecofiltro, a Guatemalan business that makes highly effective, low-tech filters which have been recognized internationally as an effective prevention tool for water-borne illnesses. Our partners believe these filters can save lives and help children and families escape the devastating consequences of chronic malnutrition.
We need your support to make this happen, as well as to fulfill our commitment to visit political prisoners each month, support orphans of government violence against community leaders, provide medical support to victims of government attacks, and stand in solidarity with our partners in numerous other ways. Please make a US tax-deductible donation of any size