By Laura Robinson and María Reyes
The court room in Puerto Barrios where Maria Cuc Choc’s trial was held. Photo Credits: Laura Robinson
On April 21st, 2022, BTS accompanied María Cuc Choc, who for the past 16 years has dedicated her life to defending the land and protecting the human rights of the Maya Q’eqchi’ people in Estor, Izabal. Maria has been criminalized for her work in the department of Izabal providing translation for Q’eqchi’ women who wish to present cases of human rights violations and violence against indigenous women. She has also acted as an interpreter for other members of her community who face criminalization.
This judicial process has been ongoing since María was arbitrarily detained on January 17th, 2018 in Puerto Barrios for crimes allegedly committed six years earlier.
BTS accompanied Maria at the previous hearing on November 8th, 2021 which was suspended and rescheduled for April 21st, 2022.
On the morning of April 21st, 2022, María Choc, her legal team, community members, and companions arrived at the courthouse in Puerto Barrios, Izabal. This time, the MP had prepared two witnesses who were ready to testify as to supposed crimes of aggravated trespassing, threats, and illegal detention.
María Choc and her lawyer Wendy Lòpez outside of the court house in Puerto Barrios before the trial on April 21st, 2022 Photo Credits: Laura Robinson
The trial began with opening arguments. The MP provided the timeline of the alleged crime that María is accused of, explaining that María entered the Finca Santa Isabel in Livingston, Izabal and led a group of 70 people to detain and violently threaten different individuals.
Maria’s attorney from the Indigenous Peoples Law Firm, Wendy Lopez, then had the opportunity to present her opening arguments. She gave an overview of the expert reports they have collected and how this case is an effort by a large company, Lisbal S.A., to criminalize Maria as a land defender. In Guatemala, there is a historical and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands and territories. Wendy further explained that Maria is one of the few women in her community who has been able to access education, which allows her to act as a translator to increase the access of her whole community to the justice system. As a result, she is being monitored more closely and targeted as a land defender.
After the opening arguments, the judge called a brief recess and moved the hearing to a small courtroom that could only accommodate the legal teams, witnesses, and Maria. Despite this troubling turn of events, the witnesses seemed to help rather than hinder Maria’s case. They did not claim to know Maria, nor to have seen her at the Finca when the crimes were allegedly committed. This provides a positive outlook for the case.
Judge Jesús Mazariegos of the criminal sentencing, drug trafficking, and environmental crimes court of Izabal, moved the hearing to a smaller courtroom, which could only accommodate the legal teams, witnesses, and Maria. (Photo Credits: Festivales Solidarios)
BTS has continued to monitor the trial and accompany Maria Cuc Choc. During hearings held on May 5th and 19th of 2022, 3 expert witnesses were presented by the defense and 3 further witnesses were presented by the prosecution. The date set for the follow-up of these hearings is June 15th for the presentation of the final defense witnesses and closing arguments.