Action Needed: Indigenous Rights Versus Terrorism and Environmental Destruction
Guatemala Solidarity Project Quarterly Report
December 12, 2015
The third quarter of the Mayan calendar year Oxib’ E came to a close as “world leaders” hold a critical round of climate discussions in Paris. There is now consensus among the world’s governments that humans are causing catastrophic climate change. Immediate, radical changes in energy production and consumption are needed to prevent disaster for humans and countless other species. In Guatemala, our partners are organizing to recuperate and protect Mother Earth. The response to their heroic and courageous effort is systematic violence and terrorism by government and private actors. As a result the overwhelming majority of children in our partner communities live with chronic malnutrition. We ask for you to take action in solidarity with them now. Not only can your action help save lives in the short term, but by joining hands with our sisters and brothers we can overcome the forces of genocide and global warming and build a new world where people and the planet come before profits for a small elite minority.
We need you to make a financial contribution of any size. We have a special opportunity thanks to an anonymous donor who has agreed to match up to $7,000 in donations received by the end of December. Whether you can contribute $3 or $300, please give what you can. Everything makes a difference and your donation will be doubled. We are proud to make efficient use of your funds. 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 signing up to make a small monthly donation is even better. We have a variety of monthly commitments, including supporting political prisoners and children of community leaders killed by government violence. Monthly donations help us maintain these commitments.
Making a donation is an easy, concrete way to take action in solidarity with our partners. But it is far from the only way. Please also consider signing up for our Urgent Action Alert by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Add to Urgent Action Alert.” Making a phone call or signing a petition may not seem like much, but the GSP and our partners have seen how such actions can make a real impact on the ground. When a community is attacked or an indigenous leader is imprisoned, it is important that we mobilize a response as soon as possible. Sending a letter won’t cause a nonviolent revolution in Guatemala. But it may put the government on notice so that they don’t torture a community leader they have just arrested or murder civilians in a town they have just attacked.
Please also consider joining the GSP and our partners in Guatemala next summer as we visit political prisoners, communities targeted by government violence and other organizations and leaders in the movement for social and environmental justice. The goal will be to create a concrete Action Plan as part of our efforts to build long-term solidarity with our partners. Exact dates will be announced soon.
Some of the areas we and our partners have been involved in during the past quarter include:
GSP benefit concert in Detriot generates funds for agro-ecological projects in two Guatemalan communities
Musician and activist Phillip Dage participated in the 2015 delegation and subsequently organized a concert with his band the Vonneguts and other musicians in the Detroit area. Seeds have already been purchased and planted with the support of REDSAG (National Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala). In Purulja, Baja Verapaz, an organization of widows has rented land and planted some crops to generate an income stream for themselves as they are cooperatively implementing a system of medicinal herbs, natural fertilization and pesticide production processes. They are implementing techniques learned in Santa Maria Xalapan through REDSAG training, and this is where GSP is funding a second, small project led by a youth organization which formed to learn the natural, sustainable and organic production and agricultural techniques. Through the donations from the concert and other supporters, we hope to start another similar project – about $1,500 total – in another community.
GSP’s support of food sovereignty in Xalapan is especially important, as this entire area is currently under attack from the Guatemalan Army and private security forces paid by the Escobal mine located in the adjacent municipality – San Rafeal las Flores. This mine opened full production in 2014 amidst community resistance, a state of siege and outright murder and oppression. The Escobal mine is owned primarily by a Canadian company and it extracted over 20 million ounces of silver in 2014, making it the third-largest in the world and exceeding the company’s own expectations for the first full year of operations.
The Xinca communities of Santa Maria Xalapan have denounced the repression accompanying this extremely profitable extraction project, which returns a small amount of money to the city government of San Rafael during its twenty-year contract, but will leave destructive environmental consequences for the communities that live in the mountains for years.
The human rights abuses surrounding the Escobal mine have been well documented:
GSP is visiting these two projects during the next quarter so we will report back with more information about the efforts our partners are making to insure that the food they consume is healthy and locally-grown.
Indigenous Q’eqchi’ Leader Manuel Choc Xol Sentenced for “Stealing Land”
On November 13, 2015, Manuel Choc Xol was convicted of “usurpación agravada,” or aggravated land theft. The verdict was yet another attempt to criminalize the indigenous movement and can be described as both disgusting and bizarre.
In 1996 the Guatemalan government signed the final Peace Accords to end decades of war. In the Peace Accords the government agreed to work to return land that had been violently stolen from indigenous communities during centuries of genocidal violence. Manuel Choc has been at the forefront of efforts to make the government fulfill its promises. The government has labeled Choc’s nonviolent organizing as a crime, and even took the absurd step of ordering him to pay a 100,000 quetzal (approximately $12,500) civil fine to wealthy “land owner” Jans Bangarte-Wugester.
In April of this year, hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers attacked the Q’eqchi’ peasant communities Sesajau and Nueva Vida in northeast Guatemala, burning down homes and destroying crops. Choc had recently represented the community Nueva Vida in negotiations with the government. As we have seen too often, the government responded to Choc’s leadership by targeting him for arrest shortly after the eviction.
“Land owner” Bangarte-Wugester acquired his land as the result of genocidal violence and corrupt courts. The land should belong to indigenous communities such as Sesajau and Nueva Vida. It is sickening that the court has ordered the imprisoned farmer Choc to pay the rich “land owner” $12,500, which represents approximately ten years of wages in rural areas.
Choc was also sentenced to nine years in prison. The sentence was later lowered to four years on appeal. We reject the jail sentence and recognize it as yet another miscarriage of justice in a series of abuses against the Q’eqchi’ people and other indigenous groups in Guatemala. Choc’s only crime is speaking out courageously in favor of indigenous rights. He is in prison in an attempt to silence his voice and terrorize other indigenous people from organizing nonviolently to recuperate and protect Mother Earth.
We have visited with Choc in prison at least once a month since he was arrested in April. We don’t want to see this great man remain in prison but we are committed to continue these visits each month until he is released. With your backing we will continue to bring him and other political prisoners a small support during each visit in the form of clothes, medicine, legal assistance or cash. Political prisoners we work with have faced torture, denial of food, denial of medicine and other forms of cruel treatment while incarcerated.
Genocidal Military Wins Guatemalan Election
On October 25, comedian Jimmy Morales was elected President of Guatemala in yet another victory for the wealthy elite who seek to exploit Guatemala’s natural resources and indigenous majority. More specifically, the election marked a strategic victory for genocidal graduates of the US Army School of the Americas (SOA).
On September 3, SOA graduate and then-President Otto Perez Molina was arrested for corruption after months of sustained, massive protests. Our partners played a key role in these protests. They recognized that Perez was corrupt, but had also called for justice well before he became President. In the 1980s Perez ordered acts of genocide against indigenous civilians. It is telling that Perez is not in prison for torture, murder, or genocide. Instead he was arrested for corruption.
Many of our partners took to the streets to demand the election be delayed so that the corrupt political parties and candidates could be investigated and likely jailed. Instead the election took place, and nearly half the country boycotted. The two candidates were Morales, who repeatedly used blackface and racist stereotypes in his comedy before becoming a representative of the military-founded National Convergence Front, and Sandra Torres, who was constitutionally barred from running in the previous election.
Morales became the second consecutive President to be elected while barely hiding a pro-genocide stance. In the 2011 election, Perez Molina was elected despite the existence of video footage of him apparently bragging about torturing and murdering indigenous peasant civilians. Perez had commanded a military base in the Ixil triangle in northern Guatemala in the 1980s, and court testimony from soldiers under his command say that his orders included “Indian seen, Indian killed.” But Perez ran the military base using a pseudonym, and Guatemalan media largely refused to show the video footage or other evidence of his genocidal past. Perez instead claimed during the election that as a military official he worked to bring an end to the country’s decades-old civil war. After being elected Perez continued racist violence against Guatemala’s indigenous population until massive protests finally led to his arrest in September.
In the case of Morales, the candidate does not have a long history of leadership in military or government institutions, which is exactly the point. The broad popular protests that brought down Perez also called for the resignation of a large number of members of congress and government officials. It was obvious that a mainstream candidate or career politician would have a difficult time gaining votes. So a group of extreme right-wing military officials chose a celebrity puppet to represent them.
Morales’ party, the National Convergence Front – Nation (FCN-Nacion), was founded in 2007 by leaders of the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), an extremist military group with powerful political influence. The primary founder of both FCN-Nacion and AVEMILGUA is US Army School of the Americas (soaw.org) graduate Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado. Ovalle led military operations in the Ixil triangle in 1981, directly overseeing the US-supported “scorched earth policy.” In 1983 he was an Operations Commander of the Coban military base. GSP allies recently participated in the exhumation of hundreds of bodies from clandestine graves buried at the base in the early 1980s. Many bodies showed clear signs of torture. Numerous human rights organizations have accused Ovalle as responsible for the torture and murder of hundreds of civilians. After retiring Ovalle maintained his influence through AVEMILGUA and later FCN-Nacion, both of which were cofounded with other former military officials who ran the scorched earth policy. Many of them are also SOA graduates. In 2012 Ovalle approached now president-elect Jimmy Morales and invited him to join FCN-Nacion. Ovalle was elected in September as a member of Congress and the leader of the FCN-Nacion congressional delegation.
Morales’ main source of support was his well-known name and his image as a political outsider. He may be the most famous comedian in Guatemala, and he had never held a position in elected office. This past made it easier for him to avoid difficult questions about his policy positions, and the mainstream media was happy to play ignorant.
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-elect Morales they expect an acceleration of current government policies of large-scale theft of indigenous lands, arrests of community leaders and burning down of entire indigenous communities. Under these conditions of growing state terrorism supported by the United States government we call for actions in solidarity with the people of Guatemala.