Guatemala: government ordered to aid evicted campesinos

As of July 5 the Guatemalan government had still failed to comply with instructions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish) to help more than 600 campesino families that had been evicted from land in the Polochic Valley in the northeastern department of Alta Verapaz. The IACHR, the human rights arm of the Organization of American States (OAS), gave the government 15 days to carry out “precautionary measures” (medidas cautelares) to guarantee the life and physical integrity of the displaced campesinos, to ensure that they had food and shelter, and to report on investigations into the violence that accompanied the evictions.

The campesinos were removed in a series of raids from March 14 to March 20. Some 2,000 soldiers and national police agents, joined by private security guards, evicted the approximately 3,000 members of 14 Q’eqchi’ Maya communities from lands in Panz├│s municipality claimed by Ingenio Chabil Utzaj S.A., an agribusiness firm owned by the Widmann family. The security forces destroyed the campesinos’ homes and belongings and some 1,400 hectares of crops, according to the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), which said the families had been living and working on the land for 30 years. Campesino Antonio Beb Ac was killed during the main operation on March 15, and 12 people were injured, including a 18-month-old girl who suffered third-degree burns on her arms from a tear gas grenade.

The evictions were the subject of a television documentary by Kinowo Media and the independent Guatemalan film collective Caracol Producciones, posted at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2zH5Ckz1G4

Violence continued after the evictions. Campesino Oscar Reyes was killed and three others were injured on May 21 while they were tending crops in the Tzamilá cooperative. The communities charged that Chabil Utzaj security guards killed Reyes. Margarita Chub Che was shot dead in front of her husband and two small children on June 4; she had participated in the Council of Polochic Communities and was said to be a beloved and respected leader. The private guards have reportedly been harassing the evicted families, who are living without adequate food or shelter now that their homes and crops have been destroyed.

“They’re killing and capturing us like in the year 1982,” one campesino said during the evictions in March, referring to the military attacks on indigenous communities that caused most of the estimated 200,000 deaths during Guaemala’s 30-year armed conflict. (Prensa Libre, Guatemala, June 13, July 6; Adital, Brazil, July 7; Amnesty International, June 1)

The Widmann family, which owns the Guadalupe sugar mill, decided to move its operations to the Polochic Valley in 2005, with the assistance of a loan of more than $20 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE). On April 5, following the March evictions, the BCIE announced a restructuring of the loan, which is now $28.5 million. Another 150 million quetzales (about $19.3 million) is expected to come from an investment by Guatemala Sugar State Corp, which is owned by Grupo Pellas, a Nicaraguan company and one of the principal sugar and ethanol producers in Central America. The Widmann family claims that the Chabil Utzaj plantation will generate 500 permanent jobs and 1,500 temporary jobs. (El Peri├│dico, Guatemala, April 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 10.

See our last post on Guatemala.