Sunday, July 5, 2015

Visiting political prisoners Rigoberto Juárez Mateo and Domingo Baltazar: the background, part 1

The first thing I did upon arrival in Guatemala, after getting in at 10:30 on Friday night, settling into my hotel and getting a few hours sleep, was to get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday in order to visit two of the "defenders of life and territory" (I will explain in a moment why I used that term), Rigoberto Juárez Mateo and Domingo Baltazar Pedro, who are in what is euphemistically called "preventive detention" (the equivalent of pre-trial detention) after being arrested in March on a series of bogus criminal charges, including kidnapping. They are among the latest in a series of indigenous and non-indigenous leaders in the struggle to defend life and territory -- what Guatemalans who are involved in these efforts prefer to call what others might label "resistance movements" or "movements against mining, hydroelectric and other mega-projects" -- who have been subject to campaigns attempting to discredit and defame them, harassment from the authorities, arbitrary arrest and even assassination. The movements to defend life and territory have been one of my central foci in Guatemala, and I have spent a fair amount of time during the last few years in Santa Eulalia, a Q'anjob'al town in the northern part of Huehuetenango, which is Rigoberto and Domingos' hometown, and the nearby tow of Santa Cruz Barillas, two municipalities that have been at the epicenter of some of the most recent clashes between the government, transnational companies and the mostly indigenous residents of these areas. In order to situate my visit in context, I need to backtrack a little and fill in some of what has gone on in the area.

Several years ago a Spanish transnational, Hidro Santa Cruz, began work on a proposed hydroelectric dam outside of the town center of Barillas, contravening a popular "community consultation" in which residents overwhelming voiced their opposition to mining, dams or megaprojects -- a catch-all term used to describe any large-scale undertaking, usually financed with foreign capital, such as biofuel production or the installation of a cement plant. These consultations in good faith (consultas de buena fé) are carried out by community members with help from some indigenous rights NGOs based on an interpretation of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which calls for prior consultation with and informed and free consent by indigenous communities regarding any projects that are to be undertaken on their territory. The consultations are supposed to be carried out by the national government, or at least with the government's participation, but the Guatemalan government has refused to abide by a ruling ordering it to establish such a procedure -- their proposal was to have some kind of a vaguely defined "public comment period". Since the government hasn't set up a process, indigenous rights groups decided to undertake this on their own. Technically these consultas (I am going to use the Spanish word here) are not legally binding because the national government doesn't participate in the process but they carry a lot of symbolic and moral weight. 

Many residents of Barillas began to mount an organized opposition to the dam.  I am not going to lay out an entire chronology here, but starting in May, 2012, a company guard killed a local leader in Barillas, and the government responded in a militarized fashion, declaring martial law and occupying Barillas. Folks from Santa Eulalia supported this movement, and the community radio station in Santa Eulalia, Snuq Jolom Konob, reported on the protests and other activities of the resistance movement. Residents of Barillas blocked the access road, burned machinery, and set up an encampment along the access road. There were also protests in nearby communities in between Barillas and Santa Eulalia about propose hydroelectric projects in those areas. Residents blocked the highway in the aldea (hamlet) of Pett, which belongs to the municipality of Santa Eulalia, and there were some disturbances in the Chuj municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán, which lies on the highway that connects Santa Eulalia and Barillas. As more communities were affected, leaders in the different municipalities joined together to form what they called the Plurinational Govermental of the Chuj, Akateko, Popti, Qanjobal and Mestizo people, and there were also local formations - the one in Santa Eulalia was called the "movimiento social" (social movement). Rigoberto and Domingo were leaders in the movimiento social in Santa Eulalia and also participated in some of the regional meetings. Rigoberto had made a trip to visit a group of Q'anjob'al elders in the immigrant community in Nebraska, who were familiarly called "los abuelos" (literally, grandfathers but it is used to mean "the elders" or "the ancestors"), and so his role in the community was not just local and regional but also international. When I first met Rigoberto in 2012, he was living in Salcajá, a small municipality in Queztaltenango, outside of Xela, but sometime in 2013 he moved back to Santa Eulalia, or at least began spending most of his time there, leaving his wife and children in Salcajá, so that he could assume more of a leadership role in the emerging movement. It may have been after the assassination of Daniel Mateo in April 2013; there's not really a precise date.

The next entry will look at the specific situation in Santa Eulalia that led to Rigoberto and Domingo's arrest in March of this year.

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