Guatemala: deadly attack on indigenous village

Heavily armed men employed by the son of a local landowner shot five indigenous Q'eqchi' on April 7 in the community of Nueve de Febrero, Cobán municipality, in the northeastern Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz, according to community residents. The wounded Q'eqchi' were taken by ambulance to the national hospital in Cobán; one died from his injuries on April 20. Residents say the attackers were under the command of Augusto Sandino Ponce, son of landowner David Leonel Ponce Ramírez. The Ponces are said to be linked to a project by Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita SA company to build a dam at Monte Olivo. The Nueve de Febrero community has been active in opposition to the dam for the past two years.

Juan Humberto Botzoc, from the Mayan Association for Integral Community Development (ASOMADIC), told an interviewer on the web-based Radio Mundo Real that Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita supporters had tried to end the opposition first by bringing false charges against activists and then by carrying out acts of violence, including an August 2013 assassination attempt against community leader David Chen which resulted in the death of two children. In November security guards employed by the Ponce family fired at community members, wounding one; another attack, in December, left four youths wounded. Far from taking action against the project, Botzoc said, "the department's governor has been saying on the radio that 'these communities are troubled, these communities don't want development.'" Botzoc noted that tensions had also developed around another hydroelectric project in the department, the RENACE 3 dam, which he said would affect eight communities in San Pedro Carchá municipality. On April 21 Carlos Vicente Chub, the secretary of a local community council there, was shot in the foot after receiving several threats, according to Botzoc. (Prensa Comunitaria, Guatemala, April 7; Radio Mundo Real, April 24)

Attacks like those against the dam opponents have become common since President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general, took office in January 2012. An April 24 article in Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) charged that Pérez Molina's government has been taking "careful and calculated" steps "to stifle dissent." The article details attacks, sometimes fatal, on journalists, human rights defenders, dam opponents and unionists. Even judges and prosecutors are under attack. On April 4 the Guatemalan bar association suspended Judge Yasmín (or Jazmín) Barrios, who presided over the court that on May 10, 2013 convicted former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) of genocide against indigenous peoples during his administration; the conviction was annulled 10 days later by the Constitutional Court (CC). International groups, including the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the Spanish bar association, the General Council of the Spanish Bars (CGAE), condemned Barrios' suspension, which was based on a complaint from Ríos Montt's defense attorney, Moisés Galindo. Efforts are also reportedly under way to remove the widely respected attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, from office six months before her term expires in December. (Latin American Herald Tribune, April 21, from EFE; FPIF, April 24)

At least seven labor organizers in Guatemala's banana-growing sector have been murdered since 2011. According to a report by the US-based nonprofit US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP), "[i]t is nearly impossible for workers to organize unions to improve wages and conditions on the Pacific coast of Guatemala," where working conditions and pay "are some of the worst in Latin America." With banana sales at $623.4 million in 2013, Guatemala is now the world's third largest exporter of the fruit, after Costa Rica and Colombia. (Tico Times, Costa Rica, April 22)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 27.

  1. Maya communities violently evicted in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

    On Aug. 14, over 1,600 members of the Guatemalan National Police and elements of the military arrived in the indigenous Q'eqchí communities along the Dolores River in Alta Verapaz to begin forcibly evicting the communities to make way for the construction of the Santa Rita hydro-electric project. In the communities of Monte Olivio and 9 de February, police burned houses and destroyed the property of the families. Hundreds of families were left internally displaced. The evictions turned deadly in the local community of Semococh where police shot and killed three residents. Sixty others were injured, and 26 were arrested in the operation. (UDW, Sept. 15)