Fourth in a series by Jim Hodgson

Read the third post, here. 

Granada Uno hearing reports. Photo Credits: CCDA

Guatemala’s 1996 peace accords ended the civil war, but did not restore land to people displaced by conflict, or result in a plan for agrarian reform, or create a system for recognition of communally-held territories (even like the fragile one that exists in Mexico). Despite sections in the peace accords on the “agrarian situation” and on “identity and rights of Indigenous people,” what was intended was not implemented. Instead, successive right-wing governments denounce what they blandly call “illegal occupations of land.”

Worse, the legal and political strategies adopted by Guatemala’s Indigenous communities to advance their land claims and other rights since 1996 have drawn criminal charges, civil lawsuits and violence, along with threats against their lawyers and even prosecutors and judges.

There are hundreds of cases, and the Highlands Committee of Peasant Farmers (CCDA) – active in almost all parts of Guatemala – is involved in many of them.

The people we met in Granada Uno hope that, with the legal and technical assistance of CCDA, their community may avoid conflicts like those that have beset scores of other communities whose land title is contested by government-backed “owners” who want the land for cattle, palm oil plantations, or resource extraction.

“This land is ours,” said one of the women who shared the report of the Granada Uno women’s group. “We’re growing things here. Children have been born here. That others come to try to take it away is not fair. It’s not just.”

Two CCDA members, Jorge Coc Coc and Marcelino Xol Cucul, Maya Q’eqchi’ leaders from the Choctun Basilá community, municipality of Cobán, department of Alta Verapaz, have been in prison in Cobán since 2018. They were convicted and sentenced to 35 years in 2019 over a 2017 murder and injury in a neighbouring community. An appeal that was to have been heard in 2020 was postponed until December 2021, when it was postponed again: CCDA called the delays “malicious.”

Jorge Coc and Marcelino Xol.

In an interview, CCDA coordinator Leocadio Juracán said the cases – more than 1,100 of them – are part of a pattern of “political imprisonment” of community land defenders in Guatemala. The authorities, he said, “are only perversely depending on the interests of the oligarchy to continue dispossessing the population. So the injustice in the country continues, the repression continues, the criminalization, the violence.” Postponements of the appeals continue because the authorities have no response to CCDA’s defence of the two men, “Jorge and Marcelino, who are innocent.”

The greatest concentration of agrarian conflicts, added Juracán, is precisely in the Q’eqchi’ territories.

Agrarian conflict in the context of development plans

After the 1954 military coup and formalized in 1970 was a development plan for the Franja Transversal del Norte (Northern Transversal Strip). This region stretches from the Atlantic coast in the east, including Izabal department, the lake of the same name, and the notorious Fénix nickel mine at El Estor that was owned at different times by Canadian mining giants Inco and Hudbay. The strip reaches across Alta Verapaz, southern Petén, Quiché and Huehuetenango as far west as La Mesilla (a key border crossing to Chiapas, Mexico).

The idea was to create a development zone for petroleum and mining exploration – and eventually hydro-electricity and palm oil plantations, including all the necessary roads and other infrastructure.

Over the decades, Q’eqchi’ resistance has been persistent. One of the most famous defenders was Adelina Caal, a Q’eqchi’ woman known as Mamá Maquín, legendary for her struggles for the land and against economic exploitation. She was born in 1915, and together with her family moved from Carchá to the Polochic River valley in search of land. They obtained a piece of land on a farm called La Soledad, Panzós.
At Panzós, Mamá Maquín developed strong leadership in rural mobilizations for access to land, while promoting the organization and participation of women. On May 29, 1978, she led the march that culminated in the Panzós massacre – the machine-gunning of Q’eqchi’ people carried out on May 29, 1978, by members of the Guatemalan Armed Forces. Including Mamá Maquín, at least 53 men, women and children died and another 47 were wounded.

A more recent Q’eqchi’ defender is Bernardo Caal Xol, a leader of the Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón, a collective of 38 Q’eqchi’ communities in Alta Verapaz formed to oppose the construction of the Oxec and Renace dams on the Cahabón River and its tributaries. He was held in prison in Cobán from January 2018 until his release on March 24 this year. Amnesty International said there was “no evidence” of the crimes of which he was accused and convicted.

Street Art picturing Bernardo Caal, Political Prisoner and Water Defender hugging his wife and daughter upon release from prison. The Text reads “Bernardo is Free but the Rivers are Still Prisoners”

“The proceedings against him show similar patterns of criminalization that the organization has documented against other human rights defenders in Guatemala,” said Amnesty.

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) recorded 839 attacks against human rights defenders from January to November 2021.