Guatemala: Indigenous protest turns deadly

2009-10-15 00:00:00

Some 20,000 campesinos and indigenous Guatemalans demanding the government overturn infrastructure and natural resource licenses, blocked the main access routes to the country´s capital city before dawn Oct. 12, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus´ discovery of the Americas, known in the region as the Day of Hispanic Heritage.
"We are not commemorating the Day of Hispanity but Indigenous People´s Day of Resistance and we´re protesting to demand that large-scale infrastructure projects be ceased. This is a movement to defend Mother Earth and territory", said indigenous and protest leader Juana Mulul.
Protesters staged the massive protest against the construction of a cement factory in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, outside Guatemala City, and a number of mining licenses granted by Alvaro Colom´s government.
"The people say no to the cement factory" and "no to mining" read some of the banners carried by indigenous protesters who walked for 35 kilometers from San Juan Sacatepéquez to Guatemala City where they blocked rush-hour traffic on four main roads. Meanwhile, military helicopters hovered close by.
Indigenous protestors were joined by students from the University of San Carlos who blocked Avenida Petapa, one of the capital´s main avenues, in solidarity with protesters´ demands.
But the peaceful march was marred by violence when 19-year old Imer Boror was shot dead as protestors blocked El Caminero Bridge, in the municipality of Mixco, allegedly by a furious driver who was caught in traffic jam. Santos Raxón, 19, and Celso Esteban Orellana, 42, suffered serious injuries and were taken to Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City.
"I understand that they argued and that there was a fight. A stranger pulled out a gun and shot [Boror]", police spokesman Donald González told local reporters.
A few hours later, Miguel Angel Arévalo, 33, was arrested for the murder, on the Interamerican highway.
Broken promises
Campesino organizations blame the government for Boror´s death and for breaking an agreement signed on July 14, in which President Colom pledged not to grant any further mining licenses during the rest of his administration, carry out a new environmental impact study for the construction of a cement factory in San Juan Sacatepéquez, and withdraw troops stationed in the area since 2007.
On May 13, 2007, the residents of San Juan Sacatepéquez held a plebiscite to vote on the construction of a Cementos Progreso cement factory which yielded 8,948 votes against it and 4 votes in favor. From the outset, residents have strongly opposed the project as the production of cement requires the use of large amounts of water prompting fears that the local aquifers will dry up, and that the project will off dust, causing serious respiratory illnesses among the local population.
Although the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169, on indigenous peoples, which has been ratified by the Guatemalan government, and the local Municipal Code emphasize indigenous people´s right to consultation and participation, the consultation was considered unbinding and ignored by Colom´s government, and Cementos Progreso – one of the country´s largest corporations owned by the powerful Novella family – went ahead with construction of the factory.
Tensions heightened in June 2008 when the police raided the homes of a number of community leaders and arrested 47 people. A few days later, Francisco Tepeu Pirir, one of the few residents who did support the construction of the plant, was murdered in the village of San Antonio Las Trojes by an angry mob who accused him of selling out to Cementos Progreso. The government responded by sending troops to San Juan Sacatepéquez.
In July this year, an indigenous march to Guatemala City demanded an end to the construction of the cement factory and an agreement was reached with the government whereby the latter pledged to carry out a new environmental impact study and remove troops stationed in San Juan Sacatepéquez. However, the Colom administration has done little more than pay lip service to the pledges and a month ago indigenous leaders broke off the negotiation process with the government.
Other indigenous grievances voiced during the Oct. 12 protest include the construction of the Las Tres Niñas hydroelectric dam on the Rio Grande or Jupilingo River in the municipality of Jocotán, in the eastern department of Chiquimula, which threatens to displace Mayan Chortí villages in the surrounding area and flood corn and bean fields, depriving local communities of their subsistence crops.
Another point of contention is the fact that land evictions have continued under the Colom administration. The latest eviction occurred on Sept. 2 when campesinos who had occupied lands belonging to the Chabil Utzaj sugar plantation in the municipality of Panzós, Alta Verapaz, were forced to leave and their crops were burnt by the police. During the eviction, a 15-year-old girl safeguarding family property within her home was allegedly raped by three police officers. There have been 65 similar evictions since the Colom administration took office in January 2008.
Campesino leaders are also calling for the immediate approval of the Integral Rural Development Law which aims to settle land disputes, and allow landless campesinos to settle on idle or government-owned lands. The bill has been sent to Congress for approval but the process is expected to be lengthy and bureaucratic.
"This is a protest against the theft of our natural resources and in defense of our communities. We´re also demanding healthcare, education and better working conditions", explains Juan Tiney, leader of the Indigenous and Campesino Coordinating Committee, or Conic.
By midday protestors reached the Presidential Palace where they were met by Catalina Soberanis, coordinator of the National Dialogue System, who said that the president was working to meet their demands. However, campesino leaders refused to leave without speaking to Colom himself even though they were informed that owing to other engagements the president will not be able to meet them until Thursday.
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