Shantytown Dwellers Occupy Congress—And Win

by Frauke Decoodt, World War 4 Report

As crisis and poverty escalate in the Western world, activists in Europe and North America occupied city squares everywhere. In Guatemala City, however, an independent movement existed, as activists occupied the street in front of Congress from Aug. 22, 2011 until Jan. 12, 2012. Here, warm houses were not sacrificed for tents—rather, miserable hovels have been exchanged for tents. Activists from the slums pledged not to leave until the “Housing Law” was approved—demanding a solution for the housing crisis in Guatemala. A lack of affordable accommodation forces uncountable Guatemalans into shantytowns where precarious living conditions often have lethal consequences.

The slums of Guatemala
Everywhere you look there are banners in the tent-camp. The khaki-colored tents were distributed in the shantytowns following natural disasters. Electricity is provided by a school down the street, and plastic toilets were donated by supportive social movements. In the camp, a coal fire is smoldering. The welcoming activists, mostly chatting women and their children, largely ignore the television. “The conditions here are better than where we live,” they assure me.

The protesters are some of the estimated 1.5 million inhabitants of the slums of Guatemala. Shantytowns are everywhere, in cities and in the countryside. Recent accurate figures are not available. Within the camp Roly Escobar, the sympathetic representative of the organization CONAPAMG (National Coordinator of Marginal Areas and Inhabitants of Guatemala), is having a meeting with his some fellow activists. We look for a quiet place to talk. Escobar has a thorough understanding of the situation, having fought for years for the rights of poor neighborhoods. Escobar claims that in Guatemala more than 800,000 families live in shacks in the country’s some 1,000 slums. Nearly half of these are situated in and around Guatemala City. According to experts, a fifth to one third of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the metropolitan area reside in “precarious” locations—that is, essentially squatting, with no official title.

The residents call their shantytowns “settlements.” They feel this is a more dignified and accurate description, as the settlements can vary in size from a house to a whole neighborhood. “Only poor people live in the settlements, they are forced to settle on land which they do not own,” says Escobar. “Often this is wasteland where nobody wants to live, on the edge of ravines, on steep slopes and adjacent to or in garbage dumps.”

After leaving the streets to live in the slums, Luis Lacán quickly became aware of the needs of the settlement dwellers and the problems they face. He joined UNASGUA—an organization that offers legal support to those who fight to improve conditions in the slums. As we sit in his humble office, Lacán explains, “living conditions are precarious because invariably the occupied land has nothing, no water, no electricity, no drainage, no paved streets, nothing.”

Lacán worries about his fellow slum dwellers. He explains that one cannot connect water and electricity without being able to prove a legal right to occupancy. The settlements are not included in official plans for regional and urban development and so are not considered for infrastructure investment. This sometimes has disastrous consequences for the safety and health of residents.

Over time residents often start to organize themselves, some areas acquire electricity and water, some shacks become more like houses, while others still resemble cardboard boxes. However, in spite of the age of a settlement, without legalization, the fear of eviction is ever-present.

Surviving in the slums
“Most families in our neighborhoods live in houses made of rusty corrugated iron, cardboard and plastic. Some families do not even have that,” says Brenda, one of the campaigners camped outside Congress. A young mother named Julia adds, “Without sewage systems all the waste water from the surrounding neighborhoods passes by our shacks, shacks which have earth floors. It’s a breeding ground for diseases and infections. Our children get sick, sometimes they die, just because they lack a decent home. My daughter was eighteen months old when she became ill and died.”

Brenda nods affirmatively. “During the rainy season, many people live in mud,” he says. “Water flows through their shacks. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to pneumonia and bronchitis and deaths are not uncommon. Recently, an elderly woman died in my neighborhood from bronchitis. Because of hurricane Agatha in 2010 she lived in a house built from cardboard and plastic. My neighborhood suffered much then.”

Malnutrition has a huge impact on the health and development of the residents, especially children. According to figures from the United Nations half of Guatemalans live below the poverty line, and half the children are malnourished. These figures are the daily reality of slum dwellers. “We do not have enough money to buy food for our children. With the privatizations everything became more expensive; food, water, gas, electricity,” explains Brenda indignantly. Escobar emphasizes that it is not only young children but that most settlement dwellers are malnourished. “How is this possible in such a rich country? Without work and income people will die of hunger here. This is already happening. Recently three fifteen year old teenagers died of malnutrition.”

Another common cause of death in these neighborhoods is violence. The slums are often associated with notoriously brutal gangs. Escobar, whose son was murdered, wants to put this violence in its context. “If there is no work, no schools, nothing to do, and you have the level of poverty where parents cannot afford to feed their children or send them to school then you are going to get criminality. Young people become easy prey to powerful organized criminals. These problems are not born here and do not only occur here. The whole of Guatemala is plagued by narcos and violence.”

Many inhabitants feel hopeless. Doña Rosa, an elderly woman who joins in as Brenda and Julia talk cannot restrain her tears. “What will happen if I die? Maybe I will never see this legalization.”

A lame housing policy and a growing housing problem
“Why do we go and live in a slum on the edge of an abyss or on a steep mountain slope? Not because we want to live like this, but because we hope to survive. People live here because they have no choice, there is no viable, affordable housing. Far too many people have nowhere to live,” says Brenda, whilst her five year old daughter jumps around catching her attention.

The reasons why there are so many overcrowded slums are diverse. The recent armed conflict, natural disasters, population growth and a lack of land or work in the countryside have forced many Guatemalans to migrate to the city and live in the slums.

Official figures estimate that by the end of 2011 there will be a housing shortage for 1.6 million households, of which 15% will be in Guatemala City. “The increasing demand exceeds the capacity of the State to resolve the incurred housing shortage,” concludes the state Peace Secretariat (SEGEPAZ). Those knowledgeable about the housing crisis and settlement residents agree that the government has never really tried to find a solution to the housing problem. ASIES, a research institution, found that since 1956 government action on housing has consisted of sporadic initiatives undertaken by inefficient institutions and of insufficient policy interventions, resulting in the accumulation of an enormous housing shortage.

To remedy this situation the first “Law for Housing” was finally approved in 1996. Overseen by the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure and Housing, the new housing initiative received a ridiculously low budget. The corrupt siphoning of funds by government officials, building companies, and representatives of neighborhood organizations has left little to provide for those with housing needs. Applying for a grant under the scheme is not only a very long and bureaucratic process, it also requires the applicant to add a considerable sum of money, something many do not have. “Given the size of the housing problem, it was clear that this law was not a solution,” concludes Lacán.

The housing policy of the last few decades was mainly characterized by cosmetic solutions claims Helmer Velásquez of the newspaper El Periodico. “Residents must first occupy what is basically an uninhabitable piece of land in order to gain the attention of the authorities. After a while they are provided with ‘important’ infrastructure such as stairs and paved allies. Especially during the elections there is thought about the conditions in the slums and about legalization.” Lacán affirms that “only during elections politicians find the way to the slums. Then they come with presents such as corrugated iron and concrete, with promises such as employment, education and health.”

From bills to hunger stikes
As a result of these myriad problems, shantytown residents and related social movements began working on a bill themselves, drawing on their own experiences, the Constitution, national laws and the international treaties of the United Nations which guarantee the right to housing. The University of San Carlos and relevant state institutions further refined the proposal. Lacán continues, “In 2008 the bill was presented to Congress. There too, the proposal was revised and eventually consented by Congressional committees. Since then it is stuck. The bill should only be reread and approved, in principle, a formality.”

On Aug. 23, 2011, when the bill was again not approved for the umpteenth time, some activists decided to set up a “Shantytown Congress,” camping in front of the doors until they are heard. “So many governments have come and gone and no one has ever taken us into account. Now we are here and we stay until they approve the bill,” declares the elderly Doña Rosa combatively.

“We struggle for a law that will benefit the entire Guatemalan population,” emphasizes Brenda. “We demand that shacks are changed into livable homes, that our land and our homes are legalized so we can finally connect basic services, we demand that housing is provided to families who really need it.”

Escobar wants socially responsible institutions and housing policy directed from a dedicated housing ministry. A good housing policy needs to have good law as its foundations.

Academics however point out that a law and legalization are not enough. Attention should also be paid to education, employment, living conditions, in short to a different socio-economic model which breaks the vicious circle of poverty. Otherwise, the slums will continue to grow.

But after nearly four months in front of Congress the slum dwellers begin to lose their patience. After the bill was rejected again on Nov. 22 three residents, including the young mother Julia, decided to start a hunger strike.

Update: A happy end?
The three slum dwellers stopped their hungerstrike after 19 days. The activists from the slums lifted their occupation in front of Congress after five months. The changing political context of the country was on their side. Otto PĂ©rez Molina would soon become the new president and wanted the streets clean for his inauguration. On Jan. 12, two days before the ceremony, he visited the protesters with the head of Congress. Both promised to pass the bill by the end of March. They carried a letter signed by 40 members of Congress backing this position. The slum dwellers vowed to return if the politicians broke their promises.

On Feb. 10, the bill finally became law. What remains to be seen now is if the measures within the law are fulfilled. Guatemala has many great laws and agreements, the problem is they are often not enacted. Another question is where will the money come from to provide decent housing for 1.5 million people within the next four years.

For a president that vowed to rule with an iron fist, and who is haunted by a past stained with accusations of grave human right violations, PĂ©rez Molina’s support for the housing law and slum dwellers seems rather unexpected. This is arguably a strategic move to prove his opponents wrong and gain support of a sizable part of the population. Many presidents have promised decent housing at the beginning of their term, but the slum residents now have a law that might force authorities to turn words into action, or in this case, houses.


This article was first published in Dutch on Dec. 2, 2011 on the author’s website, and later translated in English, Spanish and German. It was updated on May 9.


Movimiento Guatemalteco de Pobladores

International Alliance of Inhabitants

See also:

Land Theft as Legacy of Genocide in Guatemala
by Frauke Decoodt, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, December 2010

by Dawn Paley, Upside Down World
World War 4 Report, December 2011

Special to World War 4 Report, June 20, 2012
Reprinting permissible with attribution