Repression, Resistance and Indigenous Rights in Guatemala

By Isaacs, Anita; Schwartz, Rachel | Americas Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Repression, Resistance and Indigenous Rights in Guatemala

Isaacs, Anita, Schwartz, Rachel, Americas Quarterly

A clash between Indigenous Guatemalans and the army in October 2012 was a sharp reminder of the country's history of violence and exclusion. This time, though, the response has been encouraging.

The imposing statue of Anastasio Tzul, the nineteenth-century Guatemalan Indigenous intellectual and resistance leader, has presided over the tree-lined square in the town of Totonicapán in western Guatemala for as long as anyone can remember. But on a recent visit, it stood in mourning. Tzul, gripping the wooden cane carried by traditional Mayan authorities, was shrouded in a cape of black cloth, and the Guatemalan flag behind him was replaced with a sheet of black plastic, flying at half-staff. Scraps of paper carrying words of remembrance, of sorrow and fury, were haphazardly taped to the statue's base, and passersby-men and women, young and old-circled the figure reading each of the hand-scrawled messages. Although they said little, their faces made their feelings clear: pain, stoicism and defiance.

We visited the community in October and met people who were still in shock over the death of six of the town's residents in an October 4, 2012, clash with the national army at the Alaska passage of the Pan-American Highway.

On the day of the clash, some 5,000 unarmed peasants had set up roadblocks to protest a series of recent government actions: a hike in electricity prices; proposed educational reforms that added two years of schooling for those studying to become teachers; and stipulated constitutional changes that they say fail to recognize Indigenous cultural rights. In response, a convoy of 89 soldiers-comprising 77 members of a citizen security team equipped with anti-riot gear and 12 armed troops charged with their protection-traveled from Guatemala City to the site of the roadblock.

The convoy ignored repeated police requests that it retreat.

Soon after it arrived, violence broke out. The commander in charge, Colonel Juan Chiroy, hastily fled in an army pickup truck, accompanied by one of the military vehicles. Leftto their own devices, the remaining soldiers shot at the protestors, who later set fire to the soldiers' vehicle. The siege lasted two and a half hours.

Eyewitnesses pointed out bullet holes in windows, standing up against them to show how the broken panes measured up to their chests or heads.


The confrontation was a cruel reminder of the profound economic, social and political exclusion suffered by Guatemala's Indigenous peoples, which the country's leadership has not only ignored, but frequently exacerbated, since the signing of peace accords in December 1996.

Guatemala's long civil conflict was marked by the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous communities. Peace did not stop this pattern. Over the past decade, Guatemala's sustained economic expansion, marked by an increasing focus on mining gold and silver and harnessing hydroelectric power, has been accompanied by the continued impoverishment and exploitation of Indigenous peoples.

Mining royalties are growing at an annual rate of 10 percent, but Indigenous villages in regions directly affected by extractive industries do not share in the benefits. Instead, they bear the serious environmental and health costs stemming from the diversion of water sources and the contamination of rivers. The resulting dislocation of Indigenous farmers aggravates longstanding conflicts over land titling and tenure that remain unsettled, despite repeated government pledges to resolve the disputes.

Guatemala's profound economic inequality is borne out by statistics. The country currently ranks as the second most unequal in Latin America and the Caribbean, surpassed only by Haiti. The wealthiest 10 percent of Guatemalans earn 47.5 percent of national income, while less than 20 percent is allocated to the poorest 60 percent. Indigenous Guatemalans, who represent the majority of the country's population, account for an estimated 80 percent of Guatemala's poor. …

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