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New government

“He is opening wounds”

by Carlos Hugo Leal Tot

Opinion

Demonstration of indigenous women in Guatemala City in August 2012

Demonstration of indigenous women in Guatemala City in August 2012

About 50 % of Guatemalans have indigenous roots. They are politically marginalised, poorer and less well educated then the rest of the population. The lawyer Carlos Hugo Leal Tot specialises in advising indigenous groups. He told Eva-Maria Verfürth that repression is getting worse, but local communities are becoming better organised. In early October, at least six demonstrators were killed – most likely by security forces. Interview with Carlos Hugo Leal Tot

Since the end of the civil war in 1996, indigenous communities have been stepping up campaigns for their rights. What do they want?
The most important issue is land tenure. Many families have been using the same land for generations, but most of them lack formal property rights. Furthermore, they demand better infrastructure in terms of water supply, electricity, roads or telephone lines.

The peace treaty of 1996 emphasised the protection of the “indigenous identity”.
Well, the struggle for land rights and the one for the protection of the indigenous identity are really two sides of the same coin. Many communities, especially in the western part of the country, stick to the concept of communal property. So when they demand land rights, they want the indigenous property system to be accepted. Typically, they also demand more scope for participation in politics and better representation in parliament. They want the authorities to show respect for their languages and traditions. The indigenous people have actually achieved a lot in recent years. New laws concerning land tenure and indigenous law have improved their situation significantly.

Why are there so many conflicts between huge private-sector ­companies and indigenous communities all over Latin America?
Mining or hydropower projects, for instance, are among the greatest threats indigenous communities are exposed to. These companies buy land and exploit natural resources. It is worrying that our new government, which was elected last year, is cooperating closely with mining and oil companies and has already granted many licences to big firms. We also fear the constitutional reform the president is planning, he is not taking into account the demands of indigenous peoples at all.

President Otto Pérez Molina is a retired military general. In the war, he commanded troops in Quiché, where many civilians died. Is the past returning?
Well, Pérez Molina is setting up military bases even in the most remote areas, and he is boosting police numbers. So yes, he is opening the wounds of the past. Local communities try to resist, but at the same time, they are afraid. In the war, they called Pérez Molina the “captain of ashes” because of his brutality towards indigenous people. Moreover, it looks like Pérez Molina is trying to reverse all the progress that was made under the previous government.

His predecessor was Álvaro Colóm who made sure that the military archives were opened and some militaries were brought to court for crimes committed in the civil war  ...
...  yes, but the new government has decided to close the archives and has begun to prosecute ex-guerrilleros and indigenous leaders!

Who supports the indigenous ­communities?
Almost all of them cooperate with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or international development agencies. Many belong to one of the big umbrella organisations that are based in the capital such as the Comité de Unidad Campesina (CUC, the Committee of the Union of Rural People) or the Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina (CONIC, the National Coordination for Indigenous and Rural People). Organi­sations like this then establish links to donors or lawyers like me. It is aston­ishing, however, that the umbrella NGOs are keeping silent in view of the president’s reform plans. Many local groups are loosing confidence and starting to take matters in their own hands.

So the rural communities are becoming more self-reliant, ­whereas the big lobby organisations are loosing clout?
To some extent, yes. For instance, local groups are now raising funds themselves. Three months ago, a delegation that represented about 40 northern villages asked me to help them with projects concerning real estate, road construction and credit. They came to the capital city to promote their ideas, and they actually did find a sponsor.

How do you support communities like these?
I try to protect them from legal blunders and tell them about correct administrative and legal procedures. I charge them 80 % less than other lawyers do. Furthermore, I belong to the Mayan Kek’chi people, so I understand their language and traditions.

When a village asks you for help, what do you recommend?
For example, I always advise them to register officially. There is a special organisational form called COCODE (Consejo Comunitario de Desarrollo, Communitarian development board) for indigenous communities that want to get involved in public affairs. COCODEs can be run according to local traditions. Registration may seem trivial and meaningless, but it is really important because only registered organisations may apply for government support in Guatemala, no matter whether the concern is electricity, water supply, land rights or credit arrangements. Registration also provides some protection in case of legal troubles, because courts do not punish members of registered orga­nisations according to the harsh Law against Organised Crime.

That law was passed to stem high murder rates that relate to drug trafficking.
That’s right, but lately, the government has been applying this law to demonstrators who have blocked a road or a mine. According to this law, people can be arrested without legal proceedings. Moreover, under this law, prison sentences for violence or unlawful access are twice or even three times as long as they would otherwise be. Currently, lots of people from Santa Cruz Barillas, a village in the northwestern department of Huehuetenango, are protesting against the construction of a hydropower plant. Five persons have been arrested, and they are to be judged according to the Law against Organised Crime. If they can prove, however, that they belong to a registered – and thus legal – organisation, the court has to apply normal criminal law.

Does that really happen?
Yes, it does, two years ago we managed to free a demonstrator from prison by proving that he belonged to a registered organisation. He had been accused of inciting violence and sentenced according to the Law against Organised Crime.

You have been advising indigenous groups for many years now. What case has been most emotional?
A month ago, we managed to close the case of eight indigenous women against the Canadian mining company Montana Exploradora Goldcorp. It was a tough case. The women from the village San Miguel Ixtahuacan were in jail for four years, and now they are free again.

Why were they in jail?
Well, the story really began in 2004, when the Canada-based corporation Montana started gold production at the Marlin Mine. The company bought land and set up water pipes and a power grid. A local woman, Gregoria Crisanta Pérez Bámaca, was upset about a power line on her property and threw a wire over it. She caused a short circuit, so there was a power failure inside the mine. When Montana engineers wanted to fix the problem, several women flocked to Crisanta Pérez’ house and denied them access. Eight women were arrested and accused of criminal action, obstruction of a public supply system and disobedience. The case was put to rest in 2010, but the women stayed in jail.

What happened next?
In late 2010, the Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas Tz’ununija (Tz’ununija Movement of Indigenous Women) began to take care of the matter. I cooperated with them, and in one and a half years, we managed to free the women. Tz’ununija relied on lawyers, historians, psychologists and engineers. They managed to make the women speak in court and presented evidence and expertise in their favour. Crisanta Pérez was sentenced to two years on bail. The other women were declared not guilty. Montana lost the right to use Crisanta Perez’ property for a power line and had to dismantle their installations accordingly. We really triumphed in court.

What is your next project?
The people from Barillas, who are fighting against the hydropower project I mentioned before, have asked me for help. But I’m not sure I’ll accept. Ever since the case against Montana has ended, my family has been getting death threats. The Barillas case would be even more dangerous.