Nueva Jerusalen homes burned in violent eviction, photo credit: CCDA

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – Wednesday, August 9th – police and private security forces attacked the Xinka community of Nueva Jerusalen and ruthlessly burnt people’s homes and possessions. Located in Escuintla, the sugar-cane belt of Guatemala, Nueva Jerusalen is one of CCDA’s 74 prioritized cases for land defense due to their high risk of eviction.

The residents were woken by a police incursion at 6 a.m., which lasted for hours. Videos give a small glimpse of highly armed riot police encircling the small community, looking on as homes burn. Later that evening, private security forces continued the violence, burning properties to the ground.

This is only the latest in a series of forced, violent evictions inflicted on Indigenous communities throughout Guatemala.

Families homes and possessions burned under police supervision, leaving community members with nothing. Photo credit: from CCDA video.

Heavily armed riot police look on as homes are set on fire. Photo credit: from same CCDA video

Violent Eviction Follows Nationwide Pattern of Dispossession on Behalf of Extractivist Private Interests

CCDA map of the different land conflicts and cases of community dispossession it accompanies.

The crimes committed against Nueva Jerusalen follows the pattern of many other violent evictions taking place across Guatemala. Communities with long-standing ties to their land suddenly receive notice that they are purportedly  “occupying” the land of a private property owner. Often, it turns out that the supposed property owner has connections to large-scale mono-cropping plantations, like sugar cane or palm oil, or other extractivist industries, including hydroelectric dams and mines. These private actors see lucrative potential in territories that have long been carefully stewarded by Indigenous and campesino communities. They shamelessly use private security and state forces to forcibly remove communities from their land.

In the case of Nueva Jeruslen, the person claiming to own the land has only shown paperwork for land found in a totally separate department, Santa Rosa. The papers are actually for a sugar plantation owned by one of the country’s biggest producers. The alleged landowner has paid taxes for the property in three different municipalities, clearly indicating he has little knowledge, understanding or connection to the land. This is in stark contrast to Nueva Jerusalen community members, who have engaged in participatory research processes to map their land and document their longstanding connections to the territory.

State Neglect, Complicity and Violence Leave Communities Under Constant Threat

Wednesday’s raid on the 53 families of Nueva Jerusalen follows years of government failure to protect Indigenous and campesino communities. Leocadio Juracán, CCDA’s General Coordinator, reports that the community first approached him for help with their situation six years ago, when he was serving as a congressman. Since 2017, the CCDA has worked tirelessly to help the community navigate a purposefully opaque bureaucracy that has refused to protect their human rights. The state’s refusal to take action, along with the outright instrumentalization of the violent arm of the state, has left community members chronically vulnerable to expulsion, homelessness, and criminalization.

In just one example, the CCDA began meeting with the Presidential Commission for Human Rights (COPREDEH), the Secretariat for Agrarian Affairs (SAA) and other state institutions focused on land rights in 2017. However, in 2021, the corrupt Giammattei administration shut down COPREDEH and SAA, collapsing several institutions created by the 1996 Peace Accord into the deliberately ineffectual Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights (COPADEH).

Since then, COPADEH has largely rebuffed efforts to deal with the existential threats facing the Nueva Jerusalen community. For instance, in the most recent meeting with COPADEH, officials refused to openly discuss Nueva Jerusalen’s predicament. Although the community had been the target of another violent attempt at eviction just the day before, COPADEH claimed their case was not on the day’s agenda. They also defamed community members, implying some of them were the assailants, despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, the state has so egregiously failed to protect the community over the years that they, with the help of CCDA, petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for protective measures for the Nueva Jerusalen community.

These foiled attempts to have the state guarantee their human rights have not happened in a vacuum. On the contrary, the state abets and perpetrates violence against the community. The police – the armed wing of the state – have routinely terrorized, provoked and threatened community members. They have attempted violent evictions on a number of occasions based on the so-called owner’s dubious land claims, often firing tear gas directly at residents, causing severe injuries and burns. They have ransacked homes, destroyed possessions and sought to provoke community members to protect themselves. With this sleight of hand, they bring charges against community members, used to defame and criminalize the residents of Nueva Jerusalen.

In the weeks before this violent eviction, the state had suddenly showed a renewed interest in the town, sending representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), the National Statistical Institute (INE) and COPADEH. Given the widespread presence of former military in those institutions, the community suspects that their sudden presence likely allowed them to collect intelligence in advance of the attack and forced eviction.

During Wednesday’s violent eviction, COPADEH (an institution purportedly tasked with ensuring peace and human rights, including during evictions) flatly refused to take action. They claimed that previous meetings on Nueva Jerusalen’s situation were informal and had not amounted to any agreement.

However, Juracán noted the obvious: human rights are inalienable. They can not be taken away or negotiated. States have a duty to protect those rights.

People rapidly move all their possessions out of their homes. Photo credit: CCDA.

National and international laws also define the state’s obligations in the context of an eviction, including the provision of due judicial process, reasonable timely notice to the community, and adequate, temporary shelter. The state did not respect any of these safeguards. Instead, the state committed or permitted a laundry list of crimes against the community, including:

  • The CCDA had presented an injunction against the eviction order last week. Courts have not ruled to invalidate that injunction, so it should have remained in effect, preventing the eviction.
  • While the country braces itself for the second round of elections, the state has flagrantly violated a national law prohibiting evictions during this period.
  • State forces are meant to be unarmed, act non-violently and keep citizens safe from harm. Further, they must give community members time to collect their things. In reality, community members often receive little to no warning, with authorities giving as little as 30 minutes’ notice of an eviction. In this case, a judge had already granted another 24 hours for the community members to retrieve their things. Nonetheless, despite the presence of the judge, highly-armed riot police, COPADEH, and the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) at the scene, the state did nothing to protect community members. Instead, they allowed a group of armed men, supposedly private security, to light community members’ homes and possessions on fire. Burning homes is a purely punitive and illegal tactic, reminiscent of the Internal Armed Conflict when state forces would destroy fleeing communities’ homes, livestock, crops and possessions, making survival difficult even when communities escaped a massacre.
  • Even when a judge authorizes an eviction, the state must ensure citizen safety and meet basic human needs of shelter, food and sanitation. Despite years of warning, the relevant state actors provided no humanitarian measures or housing for community members. Instead, community members are camping outside the town’s entrance. They are considering renting a neighboring piece of land, so they can stay close to their territories. Meanwhile, the CCDA is working to improvise basic humanitarian support like food and improvised shelters. Nueva Jerusalen joins many other communities essentially living as Internally Displaced Peoples in Guatemala.

CCDA presents an injunction, photo credit: CCDA.

The Community’s Struggle to Reclaim their Territory Continues Forward

The state’s purposeful ineptitude and violence has left 53 Indigenous Xinka families homeless, landless, thrust into deeper poverty and food insecurity, and vulnerable to ongoing private and state violence.

Despite the devastation, community members refuse to abandon their land, remaining close and vowing to continue forward with their resistance in the face of racism, state-sanctioned violence, and dispossession.

Want to learn more about the CCDA’s work to support communities struggling to defend their lands in territories? Check out their website, follow their Twitter, or attend an upcoming, Spanish-language forum on “Guaranteeing Indigenous Territory to Protect Life,” organized by the International Land Coalition in which the CCDA participates.