Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland
Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want
Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want
Report 47 / Latin America & Caribbean

Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland

The killing of protestors last October was a tragedy foretold by those who have long warned against Guatemala’s use of the armed forces to maintain domestic peace.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

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.

Related Content

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.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 6 February 2013

Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want

Originally published in Los Angeles Times

“Mexico is a critical partner,” President Obama reminded reporters during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on July 22, “and is critically important to our own well-being.” The two presidents praised not only their countries’ immense cross-border trade but also bilateral collaboration on energy, the environment and counter-narcotics. Left unmentioned in their opening remarks was another crucial way Mexico is helping its northern neighbor: as a buffer between the U.S. and Central America’s Northern Triangle, where gang violence, chronic corruption and endemic poverty drives hundreds of thousands from their homes each year.

Two years after the flow of unaccompanied Central American children across the Rio Grande generated U.S. headlines, the humanitarian crisis continues.  Today it plays out mostly in Mexico, whose government has become the region’s “deporter-in-chief,” last year sending back 166,000 Central American migrants, including about 30,000 children, more than twice as many as the 75,000 deported from the United States. By detaining and deporting migrants, Mexico has in effect become the “wall” certain politicians are calling for — which of course does nothing to solve the underlying problems.

Over the past decade, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have seen homicides spiral out of control, approaching levels of bloodshed last seen during the armed conflicts of the 1980s. Gangs dominate major cities and many smaller towns, forcing even the poor to pay extortion. Most chilling for families is the forced recruitment of young boys and girls.  Saying no to the gangs, say refugees interviewed along the border, would mean a death sentence.

The dangers do not end for those who manage to cross into Mexico. Undocumented migrants make perfect victims.  Fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report even violent crimes, such as robbery or rape.  Groups specializing in extortion and kidnapping also know that many migrants have relatives in the United States who can be tapped for ransom money.

Irregular migration, swollen by forced displacement, ends up fueling organized crime and corruption.  No longer can a migrant pay guides – known as coyotes or polleros (chicken herders) – just enough to be smuggled across the US border. Now they must rely on networks that charge thousands of dollars to assure safe passage across territories controlled by various criminal bosses, while paying officials to look the other way.

Regional leaders are finally recognizing that the massive outflow of people from Central America is much more than migration as usual.  The United States has agreed to expand efforts to admit refugees directly from the region so they avoid a long, dangerous journey north. Under an initiative announced July 26, a program previously limited to the under-age children of Central Americans lawfully in the U.S. will now include siblings who are over 21, as well as caregivers. Those most vulnerable could be relocated in Costa Rica while awaiting approval for entry into the United States.

This initiative, however, is unlikely to discourage the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who enter Mexico each year — in part because the country is no longer just a transit country, but also a destination in its own right. Petitions for refugee recognition have more than doubled, straining Mexico’s capacity to process them fairly and efficiently.  Although its refugee commission is offering asylum to a larger proportion of applicants, the numbers deemed eligible still represent only a fraction of those needing protection. 

In the long run, Central American governments must address the economic and institutional failings that turn young people into gangsters and end the impunity of both criminal leaders and corrupt officials.

In the immediate run, the United States should help its “critical partner” stop the cycle of deportation and re-migration by providing Mexico with the resources it needs to shelter asylum applicants, adjudicate their claims efficiently and fairly, and then resettle them where they can lead productive lives.