"Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland", crisisgroup

Latin America Report N°47 6 Feb 2013

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On 4 October 2012, Guatemalan soldiers allegedly opened fire on Maya protestors from the highland province of Totonicapán, killing six and injuring more than 30. It was a tragedy that appeared to show not only the dangers of using the army to maintain public order but also the rising tensions within impoverished indigenous communities. Although President Otto Pérez Molina initially denied military responsibility for the shooting, he did the right thing by allowing prosecutors to conduct a thorough investigation. Now the government must step up efforts to reform and strengthen the national police, establishing clear benchmarks for the military’s withdrawal from law enforcement. To minimise the risk of new confrontations, it must also address the legitimate demands of indigenous communities for access to electricity, education and land, as well as their right to be consulted about decisions that affect their culture and livelihoods.

The militarisation of law enforcement is especially perilous in a country with yawning economic inequalities between the descendants of European colonisers and the original, largely Maya, inhabitants. Protests over mining and hydroelectric projects, educational reform and access to land and public utilities, especially by the desperately poor indigenous population, are on the rise. The trigger of the October protests was high electricity prices. But the marchers also incorporated demands for affordable education and the recognition and promotion of indigenous rights.

The government and its allies within the business community are determined to pursue investments in mining and hydroelectric power that it believes will stimulate economic growth, creating jobs and generating the revenues necessary to fund both infrastructure and social programs. Opponents, including some Maya communities directly affected by those projects, fear the benefits will accrue only to a narrow elite, while the rural poor will bear the environmental and social costs.

Guatemala’s recent past makes such unrest particularly dangerous. Between 1960 and 1996, the country suffered one of the most brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin American history, during which, a UN commission has estimated, 200,000 people died, most of them killed by security forces in Mayan highland communities.

Both ends of the political spectrum have used the Totonicapán tragedy to evoke the past: Some activists dubbed the killings a massacre, suggesting the army deliberately gunned down protesters to suppress legitimate dissent. Some conservatives have hinted at a radical conspiracy to create martyrs and neutralise the armed forces.

President Pérez Molina has taken several steps to defuse tensions. In the case of Totonicapán, his government promoted an agreement between local officials, the electricity utility and government regulators that may lower the cost of public lighting. It has also promised to continue pushing for a rural development law (stalled in Congress) designed to combat indigenous poverty by promoting local food production and access to land.

But tension over other issues, such as mining and hydroelectric projects, continues to fuel conflict in many rural areas. The government needs to give indigenous populations a voice and a stake in the formulation and implementation of policies that will have an impact on their fundamental interests.

The onus is not on the national government alone. Local and communal authorities, as well as organisations that represent indigenous and/or rural interests, need to negotiate in good faith to reach democratic compromises on how to manage natural resources. They must also commit themselves to peaceful protests that infringe as little as possible on the rights and livelihoods of other communities.


To avoid future confrontations and give indigenous communities a voice and a stake in rural development

To the Guatemalan authorities (national and local), security forces, investors and political parties:

1.  President Pérez Molina should commit his government to a timetable and benchmarks for police reform – including the training and equipping of units specialised in crowd control – so that the military can be withdrawn from crime fighting and other public security functions

2.  Security forces should work closely with protest organisers (and vice versa) to guarantee that demonstrations can proceed peacefully with as little harm to economic activity and commuters as possible.

3.  Congress should create legal means of addressing the legitimate concerns of communities about environmental degradation and the social and economic impact of hydroelectric and mining projects; and seek input from local indigenous leaders on legislation to establish the “good faith” consultations required under International Labour Organization Convention no. 169.

4.  The National System of Permanent Dialogue (SNDP) should promote a comprehensive review of extractive best practices, in close consultation with investors, environmental groups and indigenous organisations, in order to devise joint strategies aimed at protecting local interests.

5.  Municipal authorities, both elected and indigenous, should work together to distribute government resources in a manner that is transparent and equitable, and to set fees for public utilities, such as street lighting, in accordance with usage and income.

6.  Investors should perform environmental and human rights due diligence that takes carefully into account the special needs and challenges faced by indigenous communities; and also conduct base line studies and ongoing assessments through credible mechanisms in collaboration with the community.

7.  Political parties should promote indigenous participation at the highest levels and consider mechanisms to make the selection of local candidates and functionaries more democratic and open.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 6 February 2013