Release the Political Prisoners! Freedom!

Since July 6 I have had the opportunity to accompany the trial of seven men, including several indigenous Maya Q’anjob’al authorities, who are facing charges related to their resistance to mining and hydro-electric projects in their territory. They are not the first people to be criminalized for their resistance to large scale “mega” projects that threaten lives and livelihoods, and their cases have drawn national and international attention given the role of the ancestral authorities (most of the accused are seniors and are seen as elders and guides in their communities) involved in the case. There are currently over 100 political prisoners in Guatemala for their resistance to projects imposed by foreign companies and the government at hand. There are hundreds more who have “arrest warrants”, even though many people don’t know when they are under investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s office. Pressing charges, then letting “prisoners” wait it out in jail, as their hearings are suspended over and over again, is an incredible way to waste time and human and economic resources. In the case of some of the men, they were placed in preventative prison to await their hearing more than 400 kms (12 hours) away from their home, making family visits on the one day a week that is allowed, difficult and costly. Mynor Lopez, one of the political prisoners, was jailed close to three years ago and has been help in a prison in Huehuetenango during this time. The others have been jailed over 1.5 years awaiting trial.

Rigoberto Juarez and Domingo Baltazar, both from Santa Eulalia, as well as Mynor Lopez, Ermitaño Lopez, Adalberto Villatoro, Arturo Pablo Juan and Francisco Juan, all from Santa Cruz Barillas face charges from three distinct events in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and charges range from kidnapping/abduction, coercion, incitement to commit crimes, illegal detention, threats, obstructing justice, attempted murder and illegal assembly and demonstration. In addition to arguing that their clients are not guilty of these crimes, their lawyers are trying to show how systematic racism and neglect by the Guatemalan State has lead to the situation where corruption and impunity reign in northern Huehuetenango. According to witness Monsignor Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of the Diocese of Huehuetenango, “the communities cannot live in peace and tranquility,” because of the aggression of the hydro-electric companies operating in the area.  When asked about how the local authorities and the State of Guatemala saw indigenous communities in Northern Huehuetenango, Bishop Ramazzini responded, “They don’t realise that ancestral authorities exist” and that “they (the State) only comes to talk with the people when they want something from them.”  Expert witness Dr. Santiago Bastos, anthropologist, spoke about the role of mass media to “dis” inform the public and create the base for racism against indigenous populations to exit (i.e. when they report that ancestral authorities are “terrorists” or “armed” even when they are not).  He talked about historical roles of the military and the civil-defense patrollers in the area, co-optation of local authorities (i.e. mayors, councillors, etc.; not referring to ancestral authorities) and how resource extraction companies study local power structures in order to exploit them when they want to come into the community. He made reference to a now infamous “report” written by the lawyer for Hidro Santa Cruz (one of the hydro electric companies from Spain operating in the area) called “Report of the Criminal Structure of Northern Huehuetenango”, which accuses all of the leaders now on trial of being part of criminal structures. This report was filtered to the Public Prosecutor’s office and was the impetus they used to capture the community leaders. Ramazzini said, “the lies in that report are as big as the Cuchumatanes (mountain range in Huehuetenango).” Though called to be a witness for the defense, the lawyer who wrote the report he has refused to show up at court.
Huehuetenango, rich in natural resources, rivers and mountains, has long been coveted by the economic elite. Historically, it is region where coffee barons planted large extensions of coffee for export, using the indigenous population as cheap labour. During the internal armed conflict, the coveted area known “franja transversal del norte” lead to dozens of massacres in northern Huehuetenango (see attached report outlining where massacres happened and where hydro-electric and mining projects are being proposed today). In the past 15 years, the area has also been increasingly known as a drug trafficking route from the Atlantic Coast to Mexico.
In the opening statements, lawyer Benito Morales spoke of the fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples and the State’s incapacity to implement the 1996 Peace Accords and the implementation of ILO 169 as ratified by the State in 1997, which outlines indigenous communities’ rights to be consulted prior to the implementation of mega projects. He also noted that community-organized consultations have not been respected by the Ministry of Energy and Mines which have granted licenses in the area without consent. He reiterated the legitimate rights that indigenous communities have, according to article 66 of the constitution of Guatemala, to make decisions according to their traditions and customs. He also made direct links to Canadian mining companies (Goldcorp) in the area, linking hydro-electric projects (Guatemala already generates more electricity than it needs and exports large quantities) to mining projects that needs to generate “cheap” electricity. Morales laid out the role of Erick Archila in promoting and approving the licenses in the area. Archila, former Minister of Energy and Mines, is now at-large for his involvement in the co-optation of the state criminal case involving former President and Vice President of Guatemala as well as dozens of public functionaries and businesses (including Goldcorp Inc) that were involved in an illegal criminal structure, generating 100s of millions of dollars illegally.
Morales also talked about climate change, the role of indigenous ancestral authorities in protecting future generations and the right they have to do so as part of their legitimate and peaceful resistance to mega projects. Expert witness Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul, ph D in sociology and Maya Quiche woman, talked about the role of ancestral authorities, not as leaders, but as people designated by the population or “assembly” to represent the interests of the people in dialogues, discussions, etc. both in everyday life such as taking care of common goods like water, trees, mountains, community celebrations, etc. and also in “extraordinary” times when the community is threatened. She clearly explained (neo)liberal world views compared to the cosmovision of Maya Q’anjob’al communities and said that when authorities are jailed, it’s like dismemberment for the community. Ancestral authorities, like Domingo Baltazar and Rigoberto Juarez, she said, have an obligation to work for the community, they are not paid nor do they have time off. When a situation emerges that needs to be clarified or resolved, it is their responsibility to act and mediate for the good of the community. Dr. Tzul also said that lack of consultation and consent in regards to projects that impact indigenous communities is an aggravating factor for communities, because their traditions and customs are not respected.
Witnesses for the public prosecutor’s office have principally included staff of the justice system from the CAJ – see “what is the CAJ” below – psychologists who examined the plaintiffs after the events took placeseveral community members (linked with the company). Other witnesses for the defense have included members of the community radio in Santa Eulalia and a former international observer and photographer present during the incidents in 2014. The hearing continues this week.
What is the CAJ?
Following the signing of the Guatemala Peace Accords in 1996, 5 “CAJs” were created. These “Centres for the Administration of Justice” were created supposedly to create an integral justice system based on plurinationality, and a pluri-justice state. The defense lawyers have repeatedly shown how the CAJ in Santa Eulalia was systematically racist in its administration and had little knowledge of its mandate.  The coordinator of the CAJ in Santa Eulalia was co-plaintiff in the case but this week rescinded.
Community Consultations of “Good Faith”
These have been organized by the indigenous Maya communities in northern Hueheutenango about whether or not they wanted large scale projects, including hydro-electric and mining projects. In all of the consultations, the overwhelming majority (i.e more than 98%) voted against such projects. The communities at the centre of this hearing are:
– Santa Cruz Barillas, June 2007
– Santa Eulalia September 2006
State of Siege
It’s also important to know that just months after the Otto Perez Molina Administration (now known as a criminal structure) implemented its first “State of Siege” in Santa Cruz Barillas, in May 2012. Community leaders were detained, houses were raided and people were killed. This situation (and other States of Siege were also later implemented in areas where there is a strong resistance to mining projects, like the one imposed a year later in May 2013 in four municipalities around Tahoe Resources’ Escobal Mine).
April 22, 2013: The public prosecutor’s office claims that employees of Hidro Santa Cruz were illegally detained after 15 days of permanent protest (known “New Dawn”) was organized by community members in Santa Cruz Barillas. The permanent protest started the day that Daniel Pedro, Maya Q’anjob’al leader from Santa Eulelia who was key in organizing the community consultation and creating the community radio station, was disappeared. He was found on April 22 murdered, with signs of torture.
January 23, 2014: Arturo Pablo Juan, Adalberto Villatoro and Francisco Juan attend a hearing in Santa Eulalia where they face charges of illegal detention from the 2013 incidents. Ermitano Lopez accompanies the men to the hearing. As the hearing started, the public prosecutor’s office changed the charges from illegal detention to kidnapping/abduction which carries with it mandatory preventative prison. Community members are furious about the abuse of authority. Ermitano calms the community. A second hearing is held the same day and the charges are changed back to illegal detention and house arrest is ordered. Following these incidents, a year later, Arturo, Francisco, Adalberto and Ermitano are arrested and accused of kidnapping the members of the justice system (CAJ) the day of the hearing in 2014. According to witnesses, both by the defense and the plaintiffs, a padlock was put on the door of the Centre for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) by the staff of the CAJ, not the community members as the Public Prosecutor’s Office claims.
January 20 and 21, 2015: In November 2014, two community members from a village called Pojom were shot (one later died). The following day, the river in Pojom was diverted by the hydro-electric company. On January 20, the community of Pojom (in the municipality of Santa Eulalia) was taken over by hundreds of police, who used tear gas and intoxicate children among the rest of the community. The police aprehend two youth, and accuse them of the murder in November 2014, which the community roundly rejects (in fact, the youth jailed had been roughed up by the company according to their claims). They are flown by helicopter to the jail in Huehuetenango. The community, concerned, and knowing the history of violence and criminalization against land defenders, proceed to the town  of Santa Eulalia to get more information at the CAJ. Rigoberto Juarez, acting as an ancestral authority as part of the Plurinational Government representing four indigenous Maya groups as well as mestizos, tries to dialogue with the CAJ Coordinator, along with several other ancestral authorities about the increasing violence, militarization and police presence in the area. Juarez and Domingo Baltazar (who claims he never showed up at the CAJ because he was at home recovering from an accident) have been charged for a series of crimes stemming from this day.
Other Information: 
The case of the men who have been most recently criminalized was raised in the October 2015 session at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in Washington, DC and were represented by Maya Quiche Lawyer Edgar de Leon Chacaj from the Association of Maya Lawyers. More information here.
In April, 2016, Lisa Ranking, BTS staff person was part of the “Caravan for Dignity” to Huehuetenango. Read her report back here.
Some of the defense lawyers:
– Edgar Perez and colleagues from the Human Rights Law Clinic (Bufete de Derechos Humanos), who have successfully won cases like the historic genocide trial against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt and the Choatalum Chimaltenango case of forced disappearance
– Benito Morales, Maya Quiche lawyer who has represented the Council of the People’s of the Western Highlands (CPO) to stop mining licenses in the highlands of Guatemala and council for the seven men criminalized in 2007 by Montana Exploradora (Goldcorp Inc) and who has written extensively on access to justice in maternal languages, racism, plurinationality
– Edgar de Leon Chacaj, Maya Quiche lawyer from the Association of Maya Lawyers who represents the families of those murdered by the Guatemalan army in 2012 in Alaska, Totonicapan as well as peaceful protesters outside of Tahoe Resources’ Escobal Mine in 2013 who were shot by former head of security for the company, Alberto Rotondo.
Thanks for your interest in this case! If you would like to write a letter of support (in English or Spanish) for the men on trial, please do so and send it to me – I will print off and give it them at the hearing. Please also follow up on instagram, facebook and twitter where we are posting pictures and updates. All of the men have asked for ongoing support, to keep up the struggle in defense of Mother Earth and to spread the word about this case. A daily ceremony and gathering are being held outside the courts to support the men and all the people who have been criminalized, and murdered, for their resistance to mega projects. Please offer your energy, thoughts, and prayers, if you are able, as well.
In peace and friendship, Jackiepresos politicos libertad