As news reached me of the bloody events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, evoking the long history of racist violence against Black men and other people of color, often at the hands of those sworn to uphold the law, it was refracted by the chain of events that has unfolded during the same time period in Guatemala -- police attacks on indigenous leaders, leading to several deaths and many injured. I was struck by the parallels and also the differences. Since my writing about the resistance movement has been somewhat sporadic, I will try in this blog entry (or series of entries) to address this in a more systematic manner, for friends in the U.S. The chain of violent attacks by the police, army and also security guards hired by the capitalist enterprises whose projects indigenous communities have rejected, has deep historical roots -- we could locate the starting point with the Spanish invasion of 1524, and follow through the state-sponsored violence against indigenous communities under the so-called liberal republic of the 19th century, up through the 1954 coup and the 36-year long armed internal conflict. The climate of insecurity, also the underlying neoliberal economic projects that the government of Guatemala has supported and promoted, are also connected in important ways to the current crisis of unaccompanied minors who have been arriving in the United States in recent years -- at least the Guatemalan contingent. I do not think I will be able to fully explicate all of this in a blog entry -- that would require a more carefully researched and much lengthier article, of which this is perhaps a trial run or extremely rough draft (without footnotes or citations).
So, in what follows, I will give some historical context to struggles over land; the history of violent repression of campesino/indigenous organizing; neoliberal development strategies; and the current wave of state and corporate-sponsored violence (if I had more time I could probably tease out some interesting connections to the rise of private security in Guatemala as well).
Guatemala's history as a colony and then an independent nation has been marked by struggles over land -- in Maya-activist discourse, "tierra y territorio". Tierra has a more literal meaning, as the Spanish word can mean the earth (the planet), but also the very substance of the soil that nurtures and houses human (and animal) existence -- la madre tierra is a phrase that abounds in conversation among activists, spiritual leaders and ordinary Maya. By this I mean people who are not necessarily involved in any political movement but who have some sense of Maya identity; several decades of Maya cultural politics have worked their way into everyday life, and while much of Guatemalan revolutionary left was defanged, disheartened or cooped, in the genocidal armed conflict and the peace process (that has not lived up to its promise of a "firm" and "enduring" peace), it seems that some of the vision and politics of both the Maya movement and the revolutionary left have taken root (and this is not to say that elements of the left are not still evident -- the ranks of the current-day resistance movements are sprinkled with Maya veterans of the armed struggle).
Territorio has a more collective and historical meaning: it refers to the large areas of land that historically belonged to Maya communities, or even to the Maya and other indigenous groups as a whole. In some register, this would actually mean the entirety of Guatemala, and even beyond the current national boundaries.
The struggles over tierra y territorio, as I noted above, with the Spanish invasion and the wars against the Spanish, in which the colonists were sometimes able to pit one Maya group against another (for example, the K'iche's at one moment allied with the Spanish against the Kaqchikeles). Spain rewarded its colonists with encomiendas -- plots of land that of course had originally been used by the original inhabitants, including the labor of the Maya whose land it had been (forced labor regimes for Maya men existed until the 1970s, and were arguably re-established by force of arms during the 1980s, as the army obliged the Maya men whom they did not massacre to work for the army, serving in armed civilian patrols and often participating in massacres).
As wealthy elites and foreign capital helped themselves to even the land that had been designated by either the Spanish or the liberal republican government as belonging to the Maya, there were periods of organizing around the need for land, and land reform (I am here vastly oversimplifying decades of Guatemalan history, and my apologies to anyone who is familiar with this history). It was Jacobo Arbenz' very modest land reform proposals, threatening the vast landholdings of United Fruit Company, that led to the CIA-backed coup that toppled his government and ushered in the return to military rule (after a brief period of democratic government). While during the early years of the war the military killed student and peasant leaders, what really marked a turning point in the war were two events: the massacre at Panzós, Alta Verapaz, in 1978, of Q'eqchi peasants protesting their dispossession, and the brutal assault on the Spanish Embassy in 1980, when it was occupied by members of the Comite de Unidad Campesina or CUC (Peasant Unity Committee), demanding among other things, agrarian reform.
Historian Greg Grandin refers to Panzós as "the last colonial massacre" -- and also the starting point for an escalation of military attacks against Maya communities, starting with those who had dared to organize and raise their voices, and including wholesale obliteration of entire towns.