March 2012 News from Viviana

Greetings once again from Guatemala! It has been a very fast paced few weeks here in the capital and in the departments of Huehuetenango and San Marcos where I have been assigned. There is a new president in power, new cases proceeding through the court system, and thousands of people are mobilizing against mining and megaprojects not only in Guatemala, but also on a Mesoamerican scale going on. Things certainly are moving along for justice here, for better or worse.

Otto Perez Molina came into power on January 14th, 2012 shooing in his Patriot Party into power. While he ran on an employment and security platform, the reality of those plans may not be in the best interest of the Guatemalan people. As an ex-military intelligence commander, the security he promised has come in the form of increased military presence across the country. It is now common to see military and police check points on all major roadways as well as military personnel riding around, fully armed in the backs of police trucks. This is not a welcome reality for many who have been terrorized by these state apparatuses in the past. As for employment, the common model of neoliberal foreign investment is being heavily applied. Megaprojects are being approved across the country from hydroelectric dams to continuing the operation and exploration for mines, which means trouble for the communities who unfortunately live on top of what have been deemed ‘natural resources.’ Meanwhile several cases for crimes of the past are being slowly pushed through the legal system.

Since my last update I had the sheer luck of being able to witness the first judicial hearing of José Efraín Rios Montt for crimes of genocide. The mere fact that he had to present himself as a defendant in a Guatemalan court is hugely significant. For the past 12 years, Rios Montt has benefited from political immunity for war crimes as an active congress member. When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996 officially ending the Internal Armed Conflict, one major negotiating term of the state oppressors was to exclude any formal judicial charges from being acted upon against those who found themselves in elected positions in government. Now that he has ended his term in government, 29 years after the crimes were committed, he is finally going to trial.

On the morning of January 26th, 2012 I found myself waiting outside of the tribunal tower with a crowd of members of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) excitedly waiting for the gates of the building to be opened to begin one of the most historic days in recent Guatemalan history. (The AJR is an association of witnesses from 22 communities in Guatemala who experienced the internal armed conflict.) As we waited amidst chatter, and projections of what that day could mean, across the street a military style dressed man, in beret, boots, and aviator sunglasses took pictures of activists, survivors, and witnesses alike; a clear act of intimidation. Once the gates opened, we made our way to the courtroom, and only after waiting over an hour and literally squeezing our way through the door we’re we, and most of the witnesses, able to make it inside. Once there we found that Rios Montt, his family and supporters had been there, seated since before anyone else arrived entering through their own blocked off elevator. The case began with the prosecution presenting the definition of genocide as defined by the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. To be prosecuted for genocide, one must be found guilty of any of the following:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[1]

Rios Montt is accused of all of them. The defense has claimed that although Rios Montt was the de facto president when the conflict’s worst crimes against humanity were committed, he is not responsible because he was not the one actually killing anyone. Fortunately, after 14 hours in court the judge made it very clear that she saw right through their weak attempts at negating his role in the crimes. So as of about 9:30pm January 26th, 2012, genocide has been officially acknowledged within the Guatemalan court system. The judge, Carol Patricia Flores Polanco, determined that there was enough evidence to indict him under probable accusations of genocide. The case will go to trial in mid-April even though Rios Montt’s lawyers have already attempted to block further trial by using the amnesty law included within the Peace Accords of 1996, which allowed him to escape trial as a member of congress.

Rios Montt’s case along with exhumations of 1,450 bodies associated with the internal armed conflict, and massive protests against government policies associated with human and land rights, it has become apparent to me that the legacy of the past is ever present in the minds of Guatemalans today. While the various governments of the recent past have worked to leave the conflict as a dark memory not to be acknowledged or resolved, the memories of families, husbands, wives, children, parents, will not let the events of the conflict fade into the past. The judicial cases of Rios Montt, Mejía Victores, and several other members of the high command of the military during the most violent era of the conflict are a threat to the status quo. While they can plead ‘not guilty’ and come up with a plethora of weak excuses, in communities and old military bases across the country, skeletons upon skeletons are exhumed daily to speak truth to their power.

With each court case opened and closed, and each body that is returned to its family for its final resting place, consolation is slowly being reached for families that have searched so long to find out what happened to their loved ones. The trouble now is that the recently inaugurated President Otto Perez Molina, a man once known as “Comandante Tito”, is implicated in hundreds of tortures and deaths. He and his intellectual and financial backers are running the country and exacting their plans for power. What’s worse is that Obama and his administration are continuing the historically tight relationship of the Guatemalan and US governments. This unfortunately includes investment in both megaprojects and military funding that destroy communities. This is why NISGUA representatives will soon be on their way to Washington to lobby against continued military funding for Guatemala. This is also why we are currently accompanying several struggles against megaprojects here in Guatemala.

Megaprojects can take on many forms, all of them overwhelmingly destructive to the environment and social fabric of communities. For example, Goldcorp’s Marlin mine which I mentioned in my last email, the mine which has caused an assortment of health problems for people of the local community, including horrible rashes and sores on children as young as 3 months. The community of Sipacapa, where 15% of the mine is located, brought forth a case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in May of 2010. This case, listing all of the actual and potential health risks and water contamination imposed on the communities by the mine, lead to the IACHR’s recommendation to suspend all mining activity. Unfortunately in late December (following Otto Perez Molina’s election) the IACHR removed the official suspension, which the prior administration never heeded, ignoring all of the risks to environmental and human health implicated by the mine’s operation. Within weeks of Otto Perez Molina’s inauguration, he and representatives from several mining companies in Guatemala made a closed door deal to increase the 1% of the company’s profits going to the Guatemalan state to 4%. Perez Molina claimed that this method of negotiation was much more efficient than attempting to send the decision through the Guatemalan congress. But that raises the question of what kind of other deals he has made and how else has this decision benefited his goals? And while Guatemala may now be receiving 4% of the various companies’ profits, the Chilean state receives 36.8%, Bolivia 52.4% and outside of Latin America in Poland, the state receives no less than 90.2% for all products mined within their territory. The new administration is clearly continuing a pattern of creating a favorable political climate to attract foreign investment as part of the neoliberal capitalist economic model at the expense of the country’s inhabitants and environmental future.

Another manifestation of this model that places the economy over human well-being is the Franja Transversal del Norte. This franja is a 362 kilometer long, multiple lane highway corridor that has literally cut through communities, forcing churches, homes and agricultural fields alike to be relocated out of it’s path in the name of traffic and capital.[2] We accompany an incredible women’s organization in one such community that just so happens to have been founded as a returnee community by those who found refuge in Chiapas, México during the armed conflict that destroyed many communities of the area during the early 1980s. It is not uncommon to see communities that became victims of the ‘scorched earth’ campaigns under both Rios Montt and Mejia Victores during the most violent era of the conflict, to now have megaprojects imposed on their land and communities. In Guatemala this is an all to common coincidence that leads one to question the motivations of genocide and the violence seen throughout the region.

While there is an increased military presence especially in the areas effected by the many types of megaprojects, including hydroelectric dams and biofuel plantations, olive green-clad soldiers with very large guns can be seen now on all major highways stopping vehicles. In some particularly violent departments of the country with high narco-trafficing activity, there are current considerations of employing a ‘state of prevention’ and installing new military bases to better control the area. By putting a given territory in a ‘state of prevention’ it is essentially instituting martial law, under such circumstances, organizations are prohibited from holding group meetings. The most alarming part of all of this is that many community leaders who have been organizing against megaprojects like hydroelectric dams and mines, are finding themselves accused of a number crimes, including narco-trafficing, kidnapping, inciting violence, and even terrorism. I find it incredibly disturbing that with Otto Perez Molina in power the military presence all over the country has greatly increased while human and land rights leaders are increasingly being criminalized and smeared as ‘terrorists’ in the press. It was less than 30 years ago that they were instead being called communists and being disappeared. I say this because very recently I was able to attend an exchange between Dr. Navi Pilay of the UN’s High Command of Human Rights and organizations, indigenous representatives, and human rights defenders as they brought to her attention the array of human rights violations that have been the result of megaproject implementation and exploration.

The people brought together by the CPO or Council of Western Pueblos, and the ADH or Assembly for the defense of the territory of Pueblos of Huehuetenango brought to Dr. Pilay’s attention the lack of the government’s consideration of their rights when imposing hugely destructive projects on their land for private profit, and the subsequent violation of their human rights and criminalization. The International Worker’s Organization agreement 169 on indigenous communities right to council and consent states that any event that may disrupt social and ecological harmony of their humanity

defining the right to prevent harmful forces from imposing themselves on their communities. By criminalizing human and land rights leaders in the press, their struggle for justice is delegitimized in the public view. This creates a political climate where things like new military bases in the middle of communities are okay because it is assumed that dangerous people live there when in reality they were only trying to defend what is rightfully theirs like health, home, family and potable water.

I have a lot to say on these topics and more, but once again I fear I may be overloading you with information. When I return the US in May when my 6 months are up here, I plan to do a speaking tour with Santa Elena Project of Accompaniment or SEPA of Oberlin, my lovely sponsoring community and organization, to speak on my experiences and knowledge that I have gained from working here in Guatemala. If you know of any audiences, venues, or topics that would be of interest to you to focus my energy on, please let me know! I am excited to share what this work means for me and how it relates to the struggles we face at home in the US.

Once again, please feel free and encouraged to send me news about your lives, work, and organizing.

Thanks for reading!

For more information on things going on here in Guatemala, check out these links:


Scavenging for Gold in Guatemala

Rios Montt Faces Genocide Charges


Pamela Yates and Her New Film “Granito”

President Otto Perez Molina Calls for the Legalization of Drugs in Guatemala

Guatemala: Reconciliation or retrenchment?



Coyuntura Guatemalteca


[2] The franja is part of Plan Puebla-Panamá, which is politically and economically related to the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America for which talks have be renewed as of February 2011 by both Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. What the Franja Transversal del Norte, Plan Puebla Panamá, and the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America have in common is that they create a trade corridor through thousands of communities stretching from Canada to Panamá. This trade route is a gargantuan manifestation of neoliberal capitalism made possible through both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) of 2005. These agreements are between the governments and corporations of Canada, the US and Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panamá) respectively.