Guatemala: eight die in cement factory dispute

A confrontation between indigenous Guatemalans in the early morning of Sept. 20 over the construction of a cement factory and a highway left eight dead in Loma Blanca community, San Juan Sacatepéquez municipality, about 30 km northwest of Guatemala City in Guatemala department. Several others were injured, and three houses and five vehicles were set on fire. According to Daniel Pascual, the leader of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), several armed men, some of them employees of the Cementos Progreso cement company, fired on residents who oppose the two construction projects. A Cementos Progreso representative, José González Merlos, blamed factory opponents. "These acts of violence aren't new," he said, charging that construction workers "have frequently been harassed and attacked in their homes." Factory opponents "respect absolutely nothing," according to González Merlos.

San Juan Sacatepéquez residents, who are mostly members of the Kaqchikel Mayan group, have been organizing against construction of the cement factory since 2007; one was killed during a protest in a June 2008. Many of the residents also oppose the government's plan to run a highway through the municipality as part of the Regional Beltway, a highway which is to encircle Guatemala City. However, some residents have gotten jobs in the construction of the cement factory or have made money by selling their land for the highway. Witnesses said the violence on Sept. 20 grew out of a late-night argument between supporters and opponents of the projects; one witness claimed the participants had been drinking. A construction supporter shot an opponent dead, according to some reports, and his friends then retaliated by killing the attacker and six members of his family. (Periódico Digital, Mexico, Sept. 20, from AFP; Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 20)

In related news, the CUC was one of the organizations sponsoring two days of road blockages and other protests on Sept. 17 and 18 to demand that Congress pass two bills, the Rural Development Law and the Community Communication Media Law. Campesinos demonstrated at 26 sites around the country. The national protests came a little more than two weeks after similar campesino actions helped promote repeal of the "Monsanto Law," a measure authorizing patents on hybrid and genetically modified (GM) plants.

At least five people were injured during the protests on Sept. 18 when police agents tried to remove roadblocks in the eastern department of Chiquimula. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla told reporters that the protesters fired on police, while the CUC's Pascual described the incident as a "brawl" and indicated that police hit a Maya Chariti woman with live ammunition. A teenager suffered a head injury when protesters blocking the Inter-American highway at San Cristóbal Totonicapán, Totonicapán, threw rocks at a bus he was riding as the driver tried to pass through. Highways were also blocked in Quetzaltenango, Quiché, Jalapa, Retalhuleu and Alta Verapaz departments. In Alta Verapaz a group of demonstrators detained Raxruhá mayor Gumercindo Reyes Bolvito for five hours to pressure the authorities to listen to their demands, while in Chisec municipality, also in Alta Verapaz, alleged demonstrators damaged the home of Mayor Rogelio Cal. (Prensa Libre, Sept. 18; Latin American Herald Tribune, Sept. 18, from EFE; Prensa Latina, Sept. 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, September 21.