Sunday, July 24, 2016

Free at last, free at last -- background

It's been months since I entered anything in this blog but looking at the last entry, it is entirely fitting that this first entry after a long time shares my joy at having been able to share the first few hours of freedom with Rigoberto Juárez Mateo and Domingo Baltazar, who were finally freed tonight, after 16 months of being unjustly incarcerated on what were basically false charges.

For those of you whom I've befriended recently, a very brief background. Rigoberto and Domingo are from the Q'anjob'al municipality of Santa Eulalia in the northern part of Huehuetenango in Guatemala. Q'anjob'al is one of the 22 Maya ethnic/linguistic groups, and the municipality of Santa Eulalia is almost entirely Q'anjob'al. My friends tell me there are only a few families in the town who are not Q'anjob'al. They were arrested on March 23 of last year and have been in "preventive detention" ever since as their case very, very slowly wound its way through the Guatemalan courts. They were arrested for their leadership in a community struggle against hydroelectric projects that were being pushed down the community's throats. 

Santa Eulalia and the nearby municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán and Santa Cruz Barillas have all participated in community consultations in which the residents have overwhelmingly rejected mining and hydroelectric projects on their territory. Nonetheless, the government has granted licenses to hydroelectric companies, and a Spanish company, Hidro Santa Cruz, started preliminary work in Barillas a few years ago. The communities started to organize against the incursions into their territory, particularly galling as the proposed location for the hydroelectric dam was a sacred waterfall.

On May 1, 2012, company guards opened fire and wounded two men who were active in the resistance movement, who were returning home from the town's patron saint feast. One of the men, Andrés Pérez, died. The townspeople rose up and flooded into the main plaza; the government declared martial law and send troops to occupy the area. They went door to door looking for the leaders of the movement, ransacking people's homes and terrorizing the population. Several people were arrested, and arrest warrants issued for others. 

In April, 2013, Daniel Pedro Mateo from Santa Eulalia, colloquially known as "Daniel Maya" for his defense of indigenous culture and territory, was kidnapped on his way to a meeting. Daniel was an outspoken critic of the hydroelectric projects and the willingness of the government and transnational companies to ignore the community-based consultation process. A few days later, his lifeless body with clear signs of torture, was found in a rural community. Shortly afterwards, members of the resistance movement in Barillas set up a blockade on the road leading to the proposed dam site --a road that was built by the hard labor of community residents, not by the local or national government. This "peaceful resistance" (resistencia pacífica) was called Poza Verde -- named after the location where it was established. It's about a kilometer from the center of town, easily traversed by foot. Men from the many small hamlets and rural communities took turns staffing the resistencia pacífica, and women and girls from the nearest hamlets, Recreo A and Recreo B, took turns preparing food. 

I won't detail all of the events that led to the arrest of Rigoberto and Domingo and the others -- there were seven other leaders from Barillas who were arrested at different times. At one moment there were nine leaders from the northern part of Huehuetenango in jail. Two of them, Saúl and Rogelio, were released earlier this year, and so seven remained until July 22. But in brief: in September 2013, Mynor López from Barillas, who had helped establish the resistencia pacífica, was arrested. There were a series of disturbances and road blockages in the area around Santa Eulalia, in Barillas, and in the municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán, which is located in between Santa Eulalia and Barillas. Several times government troops were sent in. In Barillas, residents who were tired of the militarization of their town burned one of the police stations.

There were various "mesas de diálogo" (dialogues) between an organization that sprang up in the context of this resistance movement, or movement "in defense of territory and life", called the Plurinational Government, and the national and regional governments. The Gobierno Plurinacional includes representatives from at least five of the Maya ethnic groups that reside in northern Huehuetenango, along with those non-Maya community leaders who support the same basic principles (some people call them "ladinos solidarios" -- Ladinos in solidarity). The mesas de diálogo did not produce a lessening of tensions. 

Throughout all of this, there were arrest warrants (ordenes de captura) issued against not only the most public leaders of the movement but also against many, many individuals who supported and participated in the movement in defense of life and territory. The local branch of this in Santa Eulalia was often called "the social movement" (el movimiento social). Most of my close friends and acquaintances in Santa Eulalia and Barillas were affiliated with one of more of these entities, the social movement, the local government and the Plurinational Government, and they had arrest warrants against them. Often the charges were fairly serious, but also seemed to have little factual basis. A frequent tactic of the government has been to blame the recognized leaders for any disturbance that takes place, and one of the most frequently used charges - favored because it is so vague - is "plagio y secuestro" (detention and kidnapping). Staging a sit-in in front of a government office could be construed as "plagio y secuestro" -- the government officials cannot leave, presumably, during the sit-in. That's just an example -- this wasn't a situation that occurred in northern Huehuetenango. Some people were more concerned than others about the arrest warrants. Many people I knew in Santa Eulalia avoided traveling outside of the municipality, or especially to major cities like Huehuetenango, Xela or Guatemala City, for fear that they would be picked up on one of these old arrest warrants.

On January 19, 2015, there was a disturbance in one of the aldeas (rural hamlets) of San Mateo Ixtatán and the police arrested two men and brought them to the regional tribunal (Centro Administrativo de Justicia -- administrative justice center) which was located in Santa Eulalia. Representatives of the Gobierno Plurinacional and its local branch (known locally as "el gobierno local" - the local government) met with the judge late at night and into the early morning hours to try and secure the men's release. Rigoberto was one of the negotiators. In addition to his role in the gobierno local and the Gobierno Plurinacional, he is part of the "ancestral authorities" (autoridades ancestrales), which has more of a spiritual/cultural connotation. The spiritual leaders are often referred to as "los abuelos" (the elders) and the ritual center is called "La Casa de los Abuelos". Rigoberto was part of this entity (I hesitate to call it an "organization"). 

Many people had gathered outside the CAJ awaiting the results of the negotiations, including members of the some volunteer staff members from the community radio station Snuq Jolom Konob, which has been an important outlet in the community for fifteen years. Daniel Pedro was one of the founders of the radio station, although he was no longer extremely active in the station at the time of his death, and Rigoberto Juárez had also been involved in the station for many years. The arrest and negotiation was just the kind of event that a local community radio station would want to cover --in a remote rural area like Santa Eulalia, community radio often provides the only real local news coverage. While people were gathered outside, a car belonging to the then-Mayor of Santa Eulalia drove by and someone fired shots from inside the car. A young man, Pascual Basilio Pascual, was hit. The Mayor had made clear his support of the proposed hydroelectric projects -- despite the fact that over 90% of the people had voted "no" in the community consultation.  Supporters of the mayor formed a mob chased and attacked those viewed as supporters of the resistance movement (I'll use this as a convenient shorthand). Members of the mob kidnapped a woman named Dominga, stripped her of much of her clothing, and threatened to gang rape her. Two of the volunteer broadcasters at the radio station were among those chased and attacked by the mob.

A few days later the Mayor cut off power to the radio station -- the radio station had used space in the municipal building for years. And later he placed a lock on the door, effectively putting it off the air. The station's board and director managed to find a way to transmit programs online, without having a central location for the station. But they still struggled to find a way to start broadcasting again, trying to find a way to pressure the Mayor into permitting them to reopen.

 In early March, the young man who had been shot by bullets coming from the Mayor's car died in a hospital in Santa Cruz del Quiché, and preparations were made to give him a martry's funeral upon the return of the casket to Santa Eulalia. This was just around the time that the radio station board and sympathizers had decided to reopen the station. The funeral was on March 17, and hundreds of people turned out. On March 19, two days later, hundreds of people, including dozens of journalists (mostly from independent and alternative media outlets), again gathered in the town plaza to re-inaugurate the radio station. The Mayor took the stage and announced that only if the station elected a new board and found new broadcasters would he give permission, and armed supporters started to harass people in the crowd. Some journalists were attacked and had their cameras and equipment seized. Clearly, the station did not reopen that day -- it remained shuttered until 2016.

On March 24, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, both respected local leaders (Rigoberto was also quite well known on a regional level), traveled to Guatemala City to bring formal complaints about these various human rights violations in Santa Eulalia. They were intended to file complaints with the Public Ministry, the Human Rights Ombudsman's office and the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. As they were crossing the Sexta Avenida, a main pedestrian thoroughfare in the Centro Histórico, in the company of a human rights attorney, they were approached by police agents and told they were being arrested. No warrant was produced. 

Thus began the odyssey that ended -- or at least most of it -- last night, July 23 -- 16 months almost exactly to the day of their arbitrary (and now, according to Judge Jazmín Barrio, illegal) arrest.

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