Emilie Teresa Smith: Bad old days in the Guatemalan highlands
By Emilie Teresa Smith
Late afternoon and all night long last Thursday (October 4), rain washed the blood down into culverts along the Inter-American highway that snakes through the Guatemalan mountains. Eight Maya-K’iche’ community leaders, peasant farmers, and students were dead or dying, with 30 more injured—fired upon by government soldiers. The protesters had been occupying the road all day at the cold, high summit called Alaska concerned about three things: uncontrolled hikes in rates by the now-privatized electrical company, a total transformation in the educational process for new teachers (making it much harder for poor and rural students to graduate), and complete lack of consultation by the national government around proposed constitutional reforms—changes that would have a tremendous impact on community governance and control over their territories.
Violence by government troops is nothing new in these lands, or to those on whom this violence has been inflicted—Guatemala’s majority Maya indigenous people. Our hemisphere’s greatest blood-shedding occurred in the 1980s when government troops fanned out and killed a quarter-million people. Memory of the war is still fresh—though often unspoken—in most people’s minds.
And the causes of the war still mark the country: extreme poverty and marginalization of indigenous people, wildly unbalanced distribution of arable land, imposition from outside economic powers (there to squeeze a buck any-which-way out of these rich lands) from the original invaders, Spaniards out to get gold, then coffee barons of the 19th century, gringo banana barons of the 20th, and finally Canadian mining companies seeking gold—again—in the 21rst.
When General Otto Perez Molina won the elections last year, and when he took office in January, no one really knew what to expect. How could it get any worse? More than 200 bus drivers a year getting killed, extortion on a grand scale, sky-rocketing drug violence, ever more women murdered—6,500 average dead a year. Perez Molina promised “Mano Dura”. An Iron Fist.
The Iron Fist has arrived. The whole countryside—especially in zones of social conflict—has become a renewed military zone. Five new bases have been opened since January, ostensibly to fight drug crime, but much of the focus has been on controlling community protest—which focuses mainly on protection of indigenous territories from foreign mega-projects. The first large military action was in Cunen, in the war-scarred department of Quiché. Next, military bases were imposed on two high-conflict areas—Chajul, Quiché, and San Juan, Sacatepequez, where hydro-electric and cement factory projects have been sites of energetic community protest for years. In May, trouble erupted in Barillas, Huehuetenango, over a proposed Spanish hydro-electric project, which community leaders claim was imposed on them without proper consultation. One man was killed during clashes with government security forces, and Perez Molina promptly imposed martial law on the region. Several dozen community leaders are still in jail. And last Thursday—Totonicapan. With unimaginable deadly force, the peaceful blockade along the highway was attacked.
The united 48 villages of the department Totonicapan are among the best organized among the Maya in Guatemala. Totonicapenses consider themselves the descendants of Atanasio Tzul, the great Maya-K’iche’ leader who in the first decades of the 19th century successfully fought the Spanish colonial church and government. Totonicapan has ever been a guarding place for traditional ways. This is evident in the rotating forms of leadership which maintain territory and practice authority despite the ravages of war, genocide, and environmental attacks. Passing through Toto—all of a sudden—there are trees, more trees, and white, clear rivers. The forest guardians walk through these woods, and there isn’t a whiff of the Canadian mining invasion, so present elsewhere in the country.
On Saturday (October 6), the town square of Totonicapan, and all the streets leading to it were crammed with mourners, and with protesters, determined not to stand down. On Friday (October 12), as Columbus Day is marked up and down the continent, students, indigenous leaders, and peasant farmers from all of the Western Highland departments of Guatemala have promised to fill every town square. Isabel Yax, community leader from Toto, says it in a few words, “Government troops or no, the conquest here has failed.”
Emilie Teresa Smith, a Canadian Anglican priest, writer, and community activist, has worked for almost 30 years with Guatemala. She lives in Santa Cruz del Quiché, department of Quiché, Guatemala.