By Jim Hodgson

An Indigenous Xinca community on the Pacific coast, south of the Guatemalan capital, has the support of a Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking The Silence Network (BTS) partner in its effort to remain on their land.

The 53 families of Nueva Jerusalén (New Jerusalem) have the backing of the Comité Campesino del Altiplano – CCDA (Highlands Committee of Small Farmers) as they take their struggle for protection to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).

In a March 14 meeting, four representatives from the community worked with CCDA staff member, Everaldo Morales, to put the finishing touches on an appeal for protective measures to be ordered by the IACHR. Such an order would compel the Guatemalan state to protect the community while the land dispute is resolved.

Since 2017, the CCDA has accompanied the community in its efforts to regularize their ownership of 517 hectares of land in Escuintla department, which borders the Santa Rosa department. The Xinca families moved onto the land between 10 and 15 years ago. It was a swampy area adjacent to sugar-cane fields. Over time, they controlled water flows, built houses, and planted corn, papaya, yuca, plantain and chilis. They have also built a church and a community centre.

But on May 9, 2018, police, acting under a judicial order, forced community members from the settlement, burning houses and destroying crops. Residents say they lived in the streets of nearby towns until they were able to return eight months later.

“That experience marked us psychologically,” said Janet Ortega, one of the community members who met with CCDA to work on the IACHR appeal. “There was huge emotional damage, especially for the children. That is why it is urgent that the IACHR support us.”

Land registers consulted by CCDA lawyers say the land belongs to the national government. The legal processes against Nueva Jerusalén have been led by a man who claims to own it, but uses a title to another piece of land in the adjacent Santa Rosa department. That land, the lawyers say, is not his at all, and is smack in the middle of a sugar plantation owned by one of the country’s major producers.

Thus far, municipal officials in Ixtapan municipality in Escuintla department have upheld the fake claim, and courts – despite evidence showing that the piece of land in question is not the one identified by the supposed owner – have also upheld it. The people in Nueva Jerusalén and CCDA have turned to the IACHR, after exhausting all avenues of appeal in Guatemala.

“In the end, this is another attempt at cultural genocide,” said the CCDA’s Everaldo Morales. “The Guatemalan state continues to be the main actor in violating the human rights of Indigenous and small-farmer families who for many years have been involved in legitimate resistance for the defense and recovery of their territory.”

As in other many other land conflict situations in Guatemala, this one features a fake claimant who accuses non-existent people of crimes. In the event of a search for those people or in the case of an eviction, clashes may occur and then authorities lay real charges against real people. The CCDA tracks dozens of such “criminalization of land defender” cases across the country.

One of the community defenders, Cleotilde Castro, said his people are afraid of being persecuted, and that they are running out of options. Still, the CCDA lawyers’ work on the land registry issue and the appeal to IACHR give him hope.

“The Xinca is not a person who backs down,” Castro added.