Friday, January 16, 2015

Leadership on trial

When the business and political elites find opposition to their plans, they resort to repression and the criminalization of their opponents. At least that's how it goes down in Guatemala. In the community of San Juan Sacatepequez (in the department of Sacatepequez; there is a town called San Juan Sacatepequez in the department of San Marcos, just to keep things interesting), business interests have been working to establish a cement factory, against the opposition of many in the community. This has gone on for several years, and in the past year the situation has gotten more tense and conflictual.The company has hired thugs to intimidate residents, especially those in the opposition. Women in the communities have complained of assaults by the police and private security guards hired by the company. The town's mayor has been bought out by the company and has tried to pull people away from the opposition movement. In April, as I described in an earlier post there was a peaceful protest and a hired thug tried to disrupt it. He provoked a mob response and ended up dead. Barbara Diaz Surin, one of the leaders, was charged in his murder, and I decided to attend her trial, together with friends from the Prensa Comunitaria. Prensa Comunitaria is an independent news service that was started in the aftermath of the massacre of October 4, when the army opened fire on a peaceful protest on the Inter American highway, led by the authorities from the 48 cantons of Totonicapan, resulting in 8 deaths.

On Thursday, January 8, we headed out in a complicated route as we had to pick up several people along the way. One of our colleagues, Lucia, lugged along some heavy shopping bags full of staple food items. Since the tensions have risen in San Juan Sac.,the community leaders will not allow anyone from the outside to enter. So it is not possible for people to bring donations for the families of the people who are facing trial or who are in jail. Lucia knew that some of the family members would be there and so she had gathered donations so she could bring them to the courthouse and hand them over there.

One of my friends is part of the legal team and so we had talked about the trial a little bit in the day or two before. He was very worried because he saw the case as being entirely political and not really about legal issues or evidence. The only evidence that had been presented so far was the testimony of the man's son, and my friend Juan thought there were some problems with his testimony, based upon where he said he was standing in relationship to his father, and also the number of people who were part of the mob. Also, in his experience, leaders do not act the way Doña Barbara was supposed to have acted. They generally try to calm things down rather than stir them up. There are already several leaders who have been jailed on equally trumped up charges, and two of them have 50 year sentences, but this would be the first time that a woman had been sentenced for a political crime of this magnitude and for a sentence so harsh.

 When we made it to the courthouse in Mixco, we were able to find parking close to the courthouse and then encountered a long line of people waiting outside. Some of them were family and supporters of Doña Barbara and her co-defendant, while others were probably waiting for other cases. We helped Lucia lug the large bags full of food so that she could turn them over to the intended recipients, and then walked past the first set of guards. I walked in with my friends from the media, a little anxious since I did not have any press credentials. Upstairs, we found more friends and supporters, along with the attorneys and the defendants. The courtroom was small and the security guards did not want to allow all the media in. So we waited, and eventually most of us were able to go in (the guards wanted to limit it to one person from each media outlet and there were four or five people from Prensa Comunitaria). I flashed my UMass Dartmouth ID and said that I was with a unviersity radio station in the U.S.  Not true but it worked, that plus white skin/foreigner privilege.

The courtroom was tiny, and there was only room for about 25 people. I didn't understand all of the proceedings because I am not well versed in Guatemalan legal procedure, but much of the discussion focused on whether the trial could proceed, and some technical issues. Ultimately, after about an hour, the judge decided that the trial would be postponed because there was a video from the day in question that the Ministerio Publico had, and which they had not provided to the defense. So the Ministerio Publico would have to produce the video and let the defense review it in order to mount an adequate defense. 

After ensuring that both Doña Barbara and Don Basilio had understood fully and were in agreement, the judge ordered that the new date would be February 17. Doña Barbara seemed both relieved and anxious, and while people crowded around her afterwards, her first comment was that what she wanted to do was see her daughter. I spoke to Juan afterwards and he said that this had been the only strategy that they had come up with, because they felt that the judge had a very negative attitude. In Guatemala there are no juries. Cases are decided by a judge or a panel of judges, as far as I can tell, and since many judges are political appointees, the judiciary is far from neutral.

No comments:

Post a Comment