Guatemala: peasant massacre under investigation

Seven were killed and some 40 wounded Oct. 4 when security forces attacked a protest road blockade by Maya indigenous campesinos in Guatemala’s highland department of Totonicapán. Protesters were blocking Cuatro Caminos intersection, a meeting point for roads linking the towns of Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and the capital, Guatemala City. President Otto PĂ©rez Molina initially denied that soldiers on the scene were armed, saying the violence began when a private security guard on a cargo truck fired his gun in an attempt to clear the crowd. After Guatemalan newspapers ran photos from the scene clearly showing soldiers armed with rifles, PĂ©rez changed his story, admitting the troops were armed but saying they only fired in the air after the protesters “tried to lynch” them. A private security guard and the seven soldiers who fired their weapons are under investigation by civil authorities, but Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto said the troops will remain in the army pending completion of the probe. Eight soldiers supposedly injured in the confrontation were presented to reporters at Anzueto’s press conference in the capital.

Human Rights Prosecutor Jorge de LeĂłn confirmed that shells from the ammunition used by the standard army issue Israeli Galil assault rifles were found on the scene, as well as shells from another type of ammunition, presumably that fired by the security guard.

The demonstration was organized by the Committee of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán, to oppose rising electricity rates and constitutional and educational reforms proposed by PĂ©rez. The Committee said that when the attack occurred, some of its leaders were in Guatemala City waiting to meet with PĂ©rez.

Another local popular organization called the Consejo PolĂ­tico Oxlajuj BaktĂşn—the Thirteenth Baktun Political Council, a reference to the Maya calendric cycle that comes to an end this year—issued a statement after the massacre calling on the international community to establish a permanent commission in Guatemala to document “the repression, militarization and persecution of indigenous and community leaders.” The statement accused the government of violating the 1996 accords that ended Guatemala’s long civil war, and guaranteed the right to free political opposition.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has dispatched a delegation to Guatemala to investigate the facts of the massacre. Pillay visited Totonicapán during her mission to Guatemala in March, noting that although indigenous peoples constitute the majority in the country, they continue to be subject to exclusion and denial of their human rights. Guatemala was one of the first signatories of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which underscores that indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights. 

At the funerals of the fallen in the central plaza of Totonicapán town on Oct. 5, thousands of local residents gathered to demand justice in the case. (Servindi, Oct. 6; Guatemala Times, Guatemala Times, Totonicanpan.org, Global Voices, EFE, BBC Mundo, Oct. 5; Guatemala Human Rights Updates, Oct. 4)