By Raphael Freston

Water is ubiquitous this time of year in San Lucas Tolimán. Streets become streams; fields become swamps. The sky, the silvery sky, feels ever closer and heavier. Fog creeps into every corner, burying San Lucas in one vast cloud. You can see no more than an arm’s length in front of you and you can expect either a drizzle or a torrential rainstorm in the afternoons. Getting caught in a thunderstorm, especially since they come unannounced and are unforgiving in drenching you, is a common worry for me. Yet, the morning sun shimmers bright, and the sky is painted in an idyllic cobalt blue. At daybreak the weather announces hope and joy, only to be snatched away by pouring rain.

This election period felt eerily like the weather. Bouts of hope and jubilation could be found in the rallies, parades, and festivals of San Lucas Tolimán, but many I spoke to were wary of the looming dark clouds. The endless slate of candidates – over thirty political parties in Guatemala – gave the impression of lots of choice for the electorate. However, most represent the interests of the same elite, and there’s skepticism about the true possibility of change.

On the day of the election, not even the most quixotic voter foresaw a runoff between Sandra Torres, a former first lady who has faced numerous corruption charges, and Bernardo Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. The latter is from a political group that came together in the aftermath of the anti-corruption demonstrations that led to ex-President Otto Pérez Molina’s downfall. That seemed like a watershed moment for the country’s political culture, but at least since 2017, when the dominant political elite started rolling back institutional measures to fight corruption, it has been nothing but a false hope. Until, that is, the day of the first round of election. The electoral process has been tainted by unending criminalization and judicial attacks, but Semilla’s inclusion in the runoff is proof that hope is a stubborn light.

The CCDA calls for the will of the people to be respected in second-round elections, with no further judicial attacks.

The CCDA has had bittersweet feelings about the election results. Although the presidential race offers the possibility of change, the incumbent party, headed by scoundrel President Alejandro Giammattei, has swept most of the country’s municipal elections and is now the largest party in Congress. It is a surprise, therefore, that their candidate for executive office couldn’t attain the ticket for the runoff. CCDA is currently in a moment of reflection, and they are adamant that they must do more outreach work to nurture discussion on the issue of land rights in the country.

But the election outcomes haven’t been their only focus. During the campaign, they have been in communities severely affected by violence. A few weeks prior to election day, I arrived at the CCDA office and found the team in upheaval. Startling and frightening, news had arrived that many member communities had received illegal orders of eviction and were being displaced immediately. One of them was the Nueva Jerusalén community, which I have been following closely since I began here. Pictures and videos showing police units in tactical formation about to storm people’s homes came through on people’s phones. A picture of a local resident with burned skin marks from a teargas grenade thrown at him was particularly gut-wrenching. Horrific police brutality.

By law, it is illegal to carry out evictions while an election is underway. Yet, those regulations appear to hold little sway in stopping violent evictions. The police received the order to carry out the eviction, believe it or not, from the prosecutor himself, rather than from a judge. CCDA was quick to act: we gathered the proper documentation for an injunction to immediately stop the assault. This is the permanent state of low-intensity violence that marginalized communities endure daily. It’s meant to crush their spirits, but they remain resilient.

CCDA presents an injunction.

Following these intimidations, I was fortunate enough to follow a CCDA delegation as an observer to the state’s human rights roundtable. Astonishingly, I witnessed government representatives refuse to directly address the flagrant assault on the Nueva Jerusalén community. Turning everything on its head, there were suggestions that community members were the assailants. Communities that seek to prevent dispossession are left with little to no recourse to address state violence. In fact, the government roundtables and commissions do little to mediate conflict; instead, they are designed primarily to assuage criticism. Rather than allowing those spaces to be totally ineffectual, CCDA exerts pressure so that the agencies involved comply with their stated goal of defending human rights.

Another important side to CCDA’s work has been to raise awareness about land rights. The elections are an auspicious time, though not the only one, to bring public attention to the issue of land conflict. To this end, CCDA has joined efforts with other organizations of campesino and indigenous rights, like the National Coalition for Land, the Coordination of Campesino Development, and the Verapaz Union of Campesino Organization, in a national campaign to impede land evictions in Guatemala during the election. Their objectives is to, firstly, issue a clarion call to the general population about the violence impinging on rural campesino and indigenous communities; secondly, they want to highlight the fact that no presidential candidate – in the first or second round – has addressed or developed strategies to solve land conflict; lastly, they call for a politically-conscious electorate to place land rights high on their agenda. I was told that, before the first round of voting, 40% of the electorate were undecided on who to vote for. In fact, if ‘void’ was a candidate in the first round, it would have won the election. This campaign hoped to sway that constituency of disenchanted voters.

As land issues are sidelined and land eviction placed in the shadows, a different kind of violence dominates the mind of Guatemalans. News channels – mouthpieces of the oligarchy – showpiece the grim and ominous violence that has dominated Central America since the 1980s. The homicide of one of the local assembly candidates in San Lucas – along with two of his associates – left the town on edge. The shockingly horrific manner of his death alarmed everyone. Was it politically motivated? No one knows, but it almost certainly involved narcotraffic. This sense of being surrounded by violence and chaos leaves many fearful. As a result, they propose hardline approaches – reminiscent to those of popular president to the south, Nayib Bukele. The CCDA has pushed back against these violent framings that obscure the real perpetrators of land theft.

Memorial for assassinated political candidate

Following the first round of elections, we have worked tirelessly on hastening Nueva Jerusalén’s request for precautionary measures from the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights. I personally accompanied them to the courthouse to hand in documents to temporarily safeguard the community. We await further developments on their case with bated breath.

In July, I joined the CCDA team in Quetzaltenango for a three-day workshop on gender equality. It was inspiring to hear the personal stories about women role models and see how crucial raising awareness of gender issues was important both to the organization and its cause. The training was also a great moment to closely bond with other members of the organization. While there, we received news that the Electoral Supreme Court was impugning the registration of Semilla. On the same day, they went to the town square and initiated a rally in defence of democracy.

CCDA members present at a workshop.

In addition, CCDA participated in the BTS partners meeting in Guatemala City and presented to our partners the current state of land conflict in the country. Everyone – including our partners – chimed in with their concern about the upcoming election and the affects it has on their work. If Arévalo wins – a likely outcome since his opponent has a high rejection rate – the unsettling climate set by the coopted judiciary will likely burgeon for the remainder of the year. Hence, working together with other human rights organizations is as important as ever and BTS’s meeting was invaluable to tighten the solidarity knot when is most needed.

Although the political class have largely inured themselves from international pressure, it remains vital we decry against the political chicanery, authoritarian backsliding, and human rights abuses that show the growing democratic deficit in the country. It’s been great to hear that many in Canada have contacted their local MP to urge Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly to denounce the attempts to undermine the will of the people.

In the coming month we will know whether the 2015 anti-corruption demonstrations announced a new dawn in Guatemala – it was hailed as ‘Central American spring’ – or whether the country will follow an illiberal path. Whatever the outcome, it likely will presage difficult times. On that account, the support BTS gives to our partners continues to be of support in their struggles and resistance.