Guatemalan land dispute ends peacefully —for now

Several hundred Guatemalan campesinos took 30 police officers hostage [Feb. 21] in response to the jailing of a local farm leader and to demand that land they had been occupying for the last 10 years be legalized by the Guatemalan government. According to Rolando Yoc, the human rights office’s chief advocate, the local campesinos also believe that a powerful person is trying to displace them.

The conflict took place in the Caribbean coastal town of Livingston, where the campesinos detained and disarmed the officers, and then took them by boat to their remote village of Maya Creek, national police spokesman Faustino Sanchez told the Associated Press (which described the farmers as an angry mob).

According to the country’s 1996 Peace Accords, which ended Guatemala’s bloody and genocidal 36-year civil war, land redistribution and resettlement for poor citizens were obligations for the government—obligations which have largely gone unmet. According to Amnesty International, there have been 1,052 disputed land claims as of December 2005, which under the administration of former President Oscar Berger (who just relinquished office to Alvaro Colom), were often settled by home demolitions and violent evictions. In this small Central American country less than two percent of the population own 60 percent of the land. This disparity in land ownership resulted from land tenure policies carried out by successive dictatorships during the county’s civil war and led to widespread internal displacements of Guatemala’s rural poor.

The local campesinos, which according to the BBC numbered around 1,500, released the officers unharmed.

Local officials and representatives of Guatemala’s Human Rights Prosecutor’s mediated a deal between the police and campesinos. Five members of the farmers’ union will fly to the capital to negotiate with the government.

Ramiro Choc, the farmer arrested earlier this month on charges of robbery and illegally occupying land, remains in jail. Choc has also been accused of “inciting residents to take over land, including nature reserves.”

Cyril Mychalejko for Upside Down World, Feb. 27

See our last posts on Guatemala and Central America.