Sunday, July 5, 2015

Visiting political prisoners Rigoberto and Domingo: background, part 2

Santa Eulalia is the name the Spanish gave to the Q'anjob'al settlement Jolom Konob, nestled among the Cuchumatán mountains in northern Huehuetenango. The municipality's population is almost completely indigenous; there are a handful of Ladino families in the town center. Eulalenses, as Santa Eulalia residents refer to themselves in Spanish, have been emigrating to the Unites States for decades, principally to Florida and Nebraska, more recently to Atlanta, and there is evidence throughout the town of the migrant trajectories. The town stretches along the highway that connects the eponymous departmental capital of Huehuetenango to Santa Cruz Barillas, a road that climbs and winds and curves through breathtakingly beautiful -- and breathtakingly perilous -- landscapes. 

Santa Eulalia is home to the community radio station Snuq Jolom Konob, which just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in December 2014. The radio station broadcasts almost entirely in Q'anjob'al, and offers a variety of programming, ranging from traditional marimba music from Santa Eulalia -- the town's nickname is "the birthplace of the marimba" -- to a Sunday morning program featuring young children. Sunday is the town's market day, and so a lot of children come to town with their parents, and the radio station opens its doors to them. The radio station also has covered the movement in defense of life and territory, reporting on the highway blockages in nearby Pett and San Mateo Ixtatán, and some of the leaders in the local "movimiento social" do regular weekly programs on the station. Daniel Pedro, one of the founders of the station, was an outspoken leader in the opposition to the dam in Barillas, and after his assassination in April 2013, one of his daughters began to fill in a regular slot at the radio station, in part inspired by his memory. Although he was no longer involved in day-to-day operations of the radio station at the time of his death, the station personnel all knew him and he was a revered figure. 

During my last visit to Guatemala in January, friends in Santa Eulalia told me that they were facing increasing harassment, defamation and threats, mostly coming from the municipal mayor, Diego Marcos, and his allies. The mayor has been a strong proponent of the Hidro San Luis project, that would be situated in Santa Eulalia. One young friend said that he sensed that he was being followed or observed, and several people told me about town resident named Vicente López who broadcast defamatory comments about people affiliated with the social movement on one of the commercial radio stations. Rigoberto was one of the people who had come under attack. This dates back quite some time; on one of my earlier visits, probably in late 2013, my friend Alfredo Baltazar, one of the leaders in the social movement, had invited me to accompany him and a task force from the social movement who were going to investigate a problem in one of the aldeas outside of the town center, but then later called me to say that people thought that I shouldn't accompany the task force. He explained that there were people in town who were attempting to cast aspersions on Rigoberto, Alfredo and others, and the presence of foreign "escorts" (acompañantes -- accompaniment might be the ) was being used to discredit the social movement, implying that foreigners were somehow controlling the social movement and that there would not be opposition to the hydroelectric projects if it weren't for foreign interference. There are several international NGOs (INGOs, in NGO-speak) that are set up to provide "accompaniment" in Guatemala for human rights defenders (another term that comes from the NGO world that has been adopted into the discourse of indigenous rights activists in Guatemala), and the acompañantes have visited Santa Eulalia, Barillas and elsewhere fairly regularly over the past few years.

When I was in Guatemala in January, Rigoberto had said that he wanted to see me. He sounded somewhat urgent. That was unusual; while we have usually seen each other when I visit Santa Eulalia, and we had a very intense experience last summer of spending two days traveling to a gathering in Alta Verapaz, much of which we spent stopped at road block in Raxruhá, I have been the one who has initiated most of our contacts. I call him when I arrive or know that I am going to arrive. But this time was different. I knew that, like many of the leaders in the movement to defend life and territory -- people in those movements have rejected the label "community leader" which is used by the government, so I am trying to train myself to follow their lead -- Rigoberto had several arrest warrants issued against him. They included charges that he had burned equipment belonging to one of the foreign transnationals -- on a date that he was not in the department of Huehuetenango at all. In fact, when we had been stopped at the roadblock in Raxruhá in the summer of 2014, I knew that he was quite anxious because of the arrest warrants.  The roadblock had been set up by residents of Raxruhá, not the authorities -- but there was a police presence and our entire delegation was worried that either Rigoberto or I might attract some undue attention. Last fall, in the face of stepped up negative campaigns and harassment, Alfredo wrote to me to ask for a letter of recommendation for Rigoberto, as an international scholar, certifying that I knew that he was a peaceful person dedicated to working for the betterment of his community and I readily complied. So while it was unusual for Rigoberto to seek a meeting with me, I was eager to see him.

However, we were on non-intersecting trajectories. When I was in Santa Eulalia, I called Rigoberto but he was in the capital. By the time he had returned to Santa Eulalia, I was no longer there. And so we didn't get to see each.

The day before I left Guatemala, January 19, 2015, two leaders in San Mateo Ixtatán were arrested and they were brought to the courthouse in Santa Eulalia, which is apparently the judicial center for the northern part of Huehuetenango (I am a little fuzzy on the exact structure of the Guatemalan judicial system). There were negotiations overnight between representatives of the Plurinational Government and the judges to obtain the release of the leaders. There were people gathered outside the courthouse awaiting the results of the negotiations. Around 5 a.m., on the morning of January 20, the day of my departure from Guatemala, someone in a car belonging to the town's mayor, Diego Marcos, fired shots. Two men were wounded, one of them quite seriously. They were both rushed to more specialized hospital facilities elsewhere. Then as the volunteer broadcasters were showing up to start the first radio broadcast of the day at Snuq Jolom Konob, whose broadcast studios are in a small space inside the municipal building, were attacked by a mob of the mayor's supporters. One of them was the daughter of Daniel Pedro, the man who was assassinated in 2013. 

I found this all out when I went to the home of Prensa Comunitaria, an alternative web-based news service. Quimy de León, one of the editors of Prensa Comunitaria, had written to ask me to purchase a recorder but she wrote to me only the day before my departure, which didn't give me enough time, so I agreed to sell her mine when I was ready to leave, and so by arrangement I was stopping off to leave my recorder that morning, and she told me what had happened and that Rigoberto and my friend Lorenzo, who is the director of the radio station, and others had gone into hiding. I managed to get a few messages to people in Santa Eulalia as I was en route to the airport, and as soon as I got home I tried to keep up with things (yes, I know, I should have been blogging all of this in January and sparing you reading this all now).  Within a few days the Mayor had denounced the radio station, claiming that they were parasitic (since they used facilities in the municipal building) and spreading a lot of negative comments about the radio station. Then he cut off the power, and the radio station was off the air. He launched a campaign against the radio station, saying that he would support the reopening community radio station but with a different mission and with different people running it. People throughout Guatemala rallied in support of Snuq Jolom - mostly virtually, creating posters on Facebook and sending messages of support. People in the community expressed their support of the radio station, as well as members of the Q'anjob'al migrant community in the U.S., many of whom listened to the radio station via internet, sending song requests and messages via Facebook, or sometimes calling in to place requests.

In March, the radio station decided that they were going to re-open, and set a date, planning a large ceremony, to which they invited community, alternative and mainstream broadcasters from around the country, local leaders and others. However, a few days before the planned re-opening, one of the two men who had been wounded in January, Pascual Basilio Pascual Diego, 20 years old, died in hospital in Santa Cruz del Quiché. His death created an uproar among those who supported the movement for life and territory, or the resistance movement, and in several of the towns that the hearse passed as it made its way to Santa Eulalia for the funeral and burial, people turned out alongside the highway to pay their respects, and express their outrage and anger, much of it directed at the mayor, Diego Marcos, whom many felt was responsible for Pascual Diego's death -- now labeled by many in the movement as an assassination.

Hundreds of people gathered for the funeral on March 17, and the notes posted on Facebok labeled him as another martyr for the defense of life and territory. So everyone was in a solemn but defiant state two days later when the reopening of the radio station was scheduled to take place.  Again, hundreds of people gathered, this time in the central plaza of Santa Eulalia, where a platform had been erected for the speakers and the marimba orchestra. However, the festivities were disrupted by the mayor and his supporters. The mayor took the microphone and declared that the radio station was inciting violence, and that it could only be reopened by a juridical order. The mayor's supporters attacked some of the media people who had come to cover the event, including Jeff Abbott, photojournalist from the Chilean press service Opal and  Lucia Ixchíu from Prensa Comunitaria, and confiscated several cameras. 

A few days after these events, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar traveled to Guatemala City, to file complaints against the mayor for the attacks. As they were standing with some friends and allies on the Sexta Avenida of the Zona 1 -- the main street of the historic district, a large stretch of which was converted to a pedestrian-only zone some years back - they were seized and manhandled by police, acting upon some of the outstanding arrest warrants, and taken to jail.

This was just the latest in a series of aggressive actions by the state against those who have opposed mining and especially hydroelectric projects.  Immediately notices and photos were posted, declaring that Rigoberto and Domingo were the latest political prisoners of the Guatemalan state. 

In the next installment, I will try to briefly summarize what has happened between their arrest and my visit on July 4 -- a perfect way, in my view, to celebrate independence day.

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