Land Theft as Legacy of Genocide in Guatemala

by Frauke Decoodt, World War 4 Report

"This land is ours! It does not belong to the State. It is ours, as indigenous people!" So said 20-year-old Guatemalan Lorena Sánchez on May 3, 2011 when a state representative from Fondo de Tierras, a government department regulating access to land, arrived in Tzalbal to tell its people they are living on state property.

Tzalbal, a village of fourteen settlements, is located deep in the Cuchumatanes mountains. Tzalbal is home to the Ixil, a native Mayan people. The Ixiles live in the municipalities of Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal, in the northwestern department of Quiché. Tzalbal lies the municipality of Nebaj.

The villagers had no idea that their land had been nationalised in 1984—a fact that was concealed from them for 28 years. They are perplexed, shocked, and angry. In the 1980s, the area was scorched with genocide and state repression, and the majority of Ixiles were forced to flee their land.

The genocide of the Maya-Ixil People
During the 36 -year conflict in Guatemala, 98% of the 7,000 victims in the Ixil region, were Ixiles. A sixth of the Ixil population was assassinated by the army, and 70% of their villages were obliterated. Most Ixiles fled to the mountains; many died due to cold, starvation and disease.

Although the Ixil area was one of the worst affected, the whole of Guatemala suffered during the conflict that raged until 1996, which saw 12% of the population displaced and more than 200,000 killed or disappeared. The state army was responsible for 93% of the atrocities and 626 massacres. Approximately 83% of the victims were indigenous.

Post-conflict investigations from Guatemala's Catholic Church and the United Nations have established that during the 1980s the state committed genocide in Guatemala.

A people displaced from its lands
Though the genocide can be explained by the racism towards and the dehumanization of the indigenous people who comprise more than 60% of the Guatemalan population, one cannot fully understand the pattern and formation of the genocide in Guatemala without taking into account the importance of land.

The residents of Tzalbal comprehend, only too well, the intimate relationship between land and conflict. Patricio Rodríguez is only 66 years old but the wisdom of age and the harsh experience of poverty and conflict are inscribed on his face. Patricio points out that their present conditions are "because of the war, the repression, the massacres of the government in the eighties. So many years they burned our houses, they killed our animals and destroyed our milpas [small plots of maize]. Because so many people had been killed, we fled to the mountains to save our lives. The army then thought this land was abandoned, empty. But we deserted our land because of the repression. Now we are starting to realise that during the armed conflict they stole from us. And to legalize their theft they made a law."

The conflict for the land and the land for the conflict
It is the unequal distribution of the land in a principally agricultural society like that of Guatemala that has been the primary cause of poverty and conflict. In 1964, 62% of the land lay in the hands of just 2% of the national population, whereas 87% of citizens barely had sufficient land for subsistence farming.

Since independence, the Guatemalan state apparatus has largely served the interests of the Guatamalan oligarchy, in effect becoming a guarantor of land and cheap indigenous labor. These guarantees have always been provided through the use of violence and the legal system.

In the "Guatemalan Spring" that began in 1944, the state began to serve the interests of the majority of its rural population, eventually introducing an agrarian reform program. However, in 1954 these reforms were quashed in a coup d' etat, with the support from the United States of America.

The equal redistribution of the land was one of the main demands of numerous indigenous, peasant and guerilla movements that rose from the 1960s through the 1980s. Violent repression of these movements has allowed unequal land distribution to be maintained and expanded. As the post-conflict investigations by the Catholic Church and the United Nations established, land became a gain of the conflict.

After their accession to power in 1954 the army generals decided that the state apparatus should not only serve the oligarchy but also their own interests. One of their primary interests was land; their means to acquire it was through violence and laws, or what were euphemistically known as "development projects."

An assembly to inform the community
If one explores the chronology of law drafting and violent events that engulfed the region it becomes very clear how the state usurped indigenous lands. For the locals, it became clear when they researched their case.

Ronaldo Guttiérez is the young "indigenous mayor," the communitarian authority of Tzalbal. Wearing the typical red jacket emblazoned with black embroidery of the Ixiles, he explains to me in a quiet voice and broken Spanish that after the state representative left he called a meeting of the representatives of the other thirteen settlements. With the help of others, they investigated the case and decided they would organise a popular assembly to inform the whole community.

On October 6, the community hall fills with people and the sounds of Guatemalan marimba music. A painting remembering the atrocities of the conflict adorns the outside wall. About seven hundred Ixil are present, the majority of the men wear their typical straw hats, some wear their red jackets. A fair amount of women are also present, all wearing embroided blouses or huipiles and traditional traje skirts. Some, mainly older women, wear colourful ribbons knotted in their hair.

The laws of war
Ramón Cadena, a lawyer from the International Commission of Jurists, is one of the people that offered to help investigating the case of Tzalbal. At the assembly he explains that the root of the problem is a law called "Decreto No. 60-70," passed in 1970 by General Carlos Arana Osorio who declared "the establishment of Agrarian Development Zones of Public Interest and National Urgency." Quiche was one of many northern departments declared a "Development Zone."

The "public interest" was the colossal project called the "Franja Transversal del Norte"—Northern Transversal Strip—which converted a group of generals and their allies into gigantic land owners. Together with the following "National Development Plans" of 1971 to 1982, these projects aimed to promote the production and exportation of petroleum, minerals, electric energy, monoculture crops, and precious timber in the north of the country.

It should be noted that the departments mentioned in these laws were also the ones that suffered most massacres. I was informed by the lawyer Ramón Cadena that these laws are the basis for the theft of the land and natural resources of the indigenous people. They are also the root of the war that was unleashed by the government of Guatemala against the peoples of Guatemala. State violence and repression were undertaken in parallel to the "Development Plans."

Another law that sealed the destiny of Tzalbal is "Decreto Ley No. 134-83," ordained in 1983 by General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores. With this law, the army measured and territorially reorganized the Ixil region in order to establish the "model villages " and legalize nationalization.

Like many other villages, Tzalbal was converted into a "model village" or "center of development." Instead of the randomly scattered houses of an indigenous village, houses were rebuilt in a pattern where its inhabitants would be easy to control. The people that were not massacred and did not flee to the mountains, or who returned because they could not bear the harsh conditions in the mountains, were resettled in these villages. Many inhabitants refer to these villages as "concentration camps."

‎"Civil Self-defense Patrols" or PACs, were established in the model villages. These were militarised civil vigilantes organized by the army. By 1985, more than a million men collaborated with the army in the PACs. Failure to participate flagged one as a suspect subversive, which often had lethal consequences.

In 1983, as ordered in Decreto Ley No. 134-83, the PACs of Tzalbal were forced to measure their land. In front of the whole assembly, a courageous man stands and explains how the army had promised them land if they would measure the boundaries. But they were cheated. The land was measured to be nationalized.

Ramón Cadena concludes that on May 11, 1984, the state officially dismembered the original land title of 1903 and seized approximately 1495 hectares of Tzalbal land.

The laws that legalized the usurpation of indigenous land, Decreto No. 60-70 and Decreto No. 134-83, are laws emitted during wartime; locals refered to them as "laws of war." ?The peace accords were only signed in 1996. In a communiqué released after their assembly, the communities demanded that their constitutional right to possess the land be reinstated.

History repeats itself…
After so many development projects, development laws and "centers of development," the indigenous population of Guatemala is rather suspicious of any initiative that bears the name "development." The gold mine in San Marcos department is said to bring development, as is the the cement factory in San Juan Sacatepéquez. Both seem to bring more development to its owners then to the local population.

The laws passed during the war remain in force, and other new laws have since been added which open opportunities in new territories or reinforce control over the land already seized. Such is the case with the Law for Public-Private Alliances, which allows the state to legalize land evictions for the sake of "public interest." Under the Development Plan of the present government of President Álvaro Colom the economic development of the "Franja Transversal del Norte" continues, adding amongst other regions Petén rainforest and the Pacific Coast. The evictions of peasants and indigenous communities continue.

Mega-projects continue to flood Guatemala like the hydroelectric dams that are slated to inundate its indigenous lands. Such is the case with recently approved "Oregano" project, a hydroelectric dam that will inundate land of the Chortis living in the municipality of Jocotán, near the Honduran border. Electric energy is indispensable for big industries like mining companies, oil refineries, and the massive monoculture plantations of sugar, oil palm trees, bananas or coffee. And of course one needs gigantic roads and a large infrastructure to transport all this produce.

The same unequal land distribution continues. According to the last census of 2003, almost 80 percent of the productive land remains in the hands of less then eight percent of Guatemala's population of 14 million. More than 45 percent have not enough land for subsistence farming. Not surprisingly, half the population lives in poverty and 17 percent in extreme poverty.

And many of the same people remain in power. "It was Tito who was the commander of the army, he was the chief," explains 20-year-old Lorena, in a low and preoccupied voice. Tito is seared in the collective memory as commander of the Nebaj military base in 1982 and 1983. "General Tito" is the local nickname of Otto Pérez Molina—the presidential candidate who won the elections held on Nov. 6. A villager remembers: "It was he that obliged us to measure the land, he was in command when our land was stolen from us ."

The fear remains too. When one speaks of Otto Pérez, one does it anonymously.

Finally, the same indigenous peoples also remain, still fighting for their land. As Lorena insists, "We have natural resources to defend; as indigenous people we have a right to defend our water, our forests, our rivers." Old Patricio Rodríguez asserts that multinationals "should return to their own lands with the plans they have…"

In unity, the struggle continues
I am told Tzalbal is the first village to find out that their land was nationalized, and the first to publicly denounce this, and to demand, unconditionally, that their land be returned. Nonetheless, the case of Tzalbal is illustrative of what the conflict in Guatemala was about. This conflict was about land.

‎The methods used to acquire land in Tzalbal are also familiar. The natives of Tzalbal appear to be the unwilling actors in a drama that always seems to repeat itself in Guatemala. A drama which has run for more than 500 years where invaders—whether Spanish, military or "representative" democratic governments—steal the land of the indigenous peoples through laws and violence.

But the struggle of the communities persists. In the assembly, the words "worried" and "capitalism" are heard over and over. But the community hall is filled with a militant conviction. United, the gathered Ixiles shout, "We don't want another master!," "Overturn the law ! Give us back our land!"

When I ask Patricio Rodríguez how he thinks they will recover their land, he responds, "through unity, through demonstrations, through national and international organizations concerned with our rights. We will get our land back, bit by bit, step by step."

Gregorio, the man responsible for Tzalbal's drinking water continues, "All together, we will go to congress, to the ministries, until they take us into account. As they stole from the community, they have to return the land, without any conditions, in the name of the community. Because it is unquestionable, the land is from our forefathers, from our great grandfathers that have passed away; they left the land to us as we are their children ” .

For safety reasons the names of the interviewees in Tzabal were changed.


This story and accompanying photo first appeared Oct. 21 on Frauke Decoodt's blog.

From our Daily Report:

Guatemala: president-elect accused in 1980s genocide
World War 4 Report, Nov. 8, 2011

Guatemala: thousands march against cement plant
World War 4 Report, July 29, 2009

See related story, this issue:

Justice and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala
by Paul Imison, Upside Down World
World War 4 Report, December 2011

See also:

by Nathan Einbinder, Environment News Service
World War 4 Report, April 2009

Special to World War 4 Report, Dec. 1, 2011
Reprinting permissible with attribution