The murder of Indigenous activist Pascual Pablo Francisco, whose body showed signs of torture when he was found dead on March 27 in the northern department of Huehuetenango, is the latest episode in a long-standing conflict between the Guatemalan government and the Mayan Q’anjob’al community over the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the K’anbalam River.
The conflict dates back to 2011, when Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s government granted the company Hidro Santa Cruz, a subsidiary of Spanish corporation Hidralia Energía, a license to build the dam. Indigenous communities that would be affected by the project say that they were not consulted—a violation of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal people, which states, among other things, that governments should establish or maintain procedures to consult affected Indigenous communities “before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of […] resources pertaining to their lands.”
The government has since held a series of meetings with community leaders conducted by the Oficina Nacional de Diálogo (National Office for Dialogue) to resolve the conflict, but participants have been unable to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, two other licenses were subsequently granted to the company Promoción de Desarrollos Hídricos, S.A. (PDHSA) in the nearby municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán. The Ministry of Energy and Mining is also evaluating three other license applications for hydroelectric dams to be built in the municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán, Santa Eulalia and San Pedro Soloma. According to a recent report published by Contrapoder magazine, if these applications are successful, Huehuetenango would become the third most important department in Guatemala in terms of hydropower.
The Mayan Q’anjob’al communities of Northern Huehuetenango strongly oppose these projects on the grounds that the widespread flooding the dams would cause will lead to the displacement of local families.
The murder of community leader Andrés Pedro Miguel by armed security guards employed by Hidralia in May 2012 sparked a series of protests throughout northern Huehuetenango. In September 2013, the two employees accused of shooting Andrés Pedro Miguel were found not guilty of murder by the High Risk Tribunal A in Guatemala City, but one of them, Ricardo Arturo García, was given a five year sentence for grievous bodily harm.
In 2012, the Pérez Molina administration responded to the protests by declaring a state of siege in the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas. Constitutional rights were suspended during the state of siege, and the army took control of the area. Soldiers burst into community leaders’ homes without search warrants and 19 people were detained and taken to a high-security prison in Guatemala City, charged with crimes ranging from armed robbery to terrorism. Some leaders were eventually released due to a lack of evidence after being imprisoned for up to 150 days and others are still awaiting trial.
According to Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge de León Duque, the detainees’ civil rights were violated because they were not informed of the reason they were being imprisoned and they were not allowed access to translators, even though they were Q’anjob’al speakers.
The conflict was re-ignited on January 20 this year, after Santa Eulalia Mayor Diego Marcos, who is in favor of the hydroelectric dam, forcibly shut down community radio station Snuq Jolom Konob, under the argument that the station was inciting violence.
Founded 15 years ago and staffed by Indigenous volunteers, Snuq Jolom Konob broadcasts in the Mayan Q’anjob’al language and has allowed the communities of northern Huehuetenango to voice their opposition to the project. The station used to broadcast from the town hall.
The day Mayor Diego Marcos shut down Snuq Jolom Konob, a confrontation between locals and municipal employees, including the mayor, broke out in front of the town hall. A heated exchange of words led to a scuffle in which Pascual Basilio Pascual Diego, 20, was shot. He died in the hospital two months later. Eyewitnesses accuse the mayor, who was allegedly inebriated, of drawing his weapon and shooting him. So far, the authorities have not investigated the case and Marcos has not been prosecuted, which has exacerbated tensions and angered the community.
On March 19, community leaders tried to re-open the radio station, but municipal employees forcibly prevented them from entering the premises, and to this day, Snuq Jolom Konob remains closed.
Five days later, Mayan leaders Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar were arrested without a warrant after they traveled to Guatemala City to meet with human rights organizations that are documenting alleged violations committed against the radio station’s activists, including the violation of their right to freedom of speech and the alleged murder of Pascual Basilio Pascual Diego. During their arrest, their lawyer, Ricardo Cajas, was allegedly beaten by the police after he demanded that they produce an arrest warrant and read Juárez and Baltazar their rights.
Juárez and Baltazar are accused of inciting acts of sabotage against the hydroelectric companies operating in Northern Huehuetenango, such as burning machinery and other property. Juárez, a former guerrilla combatant, is the leader of the Plurinational Authority of the Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Akateko, Poptí and Mestizo People of Huehuetenango and has also been accused by Vice Minister for Security Eddy Juárez of instructing the community to illegally detain and interrogate any government official or company representative that enters the area.
Speaking from prison, Juárez has made a number of statements regarding Indigenous autonomy as the only possible way for Mayan communities to exercise their right to self-determination—reflecting the extent to which relations between the central government and the Mayan leaders of northern Huehuetenango have become strained. “Self-determination is the way. There is no other way, because the state is not a viable option for us. The state has been built in order to repress our people, to harm us and to steal from us the little resources that we have,” he told Guatemalan journalist Andrea Ixchiú
On March 27, Pascual Pablo Francisco’s body was found in the village of Chancolin, in Santa Cruz Barillas. Mayan leaders accuse Hidro Santa Cruz of kidnapping him and murdering him, exacerbating tensions between the company, the authorities, and Indigenous communities.
Hidro Santa Cruz has not released a statement on the issue.
The article published by Contrapoder describes northern Huehuetenango as “a pressure cooker about to explode,” which reflects the extent to which the government’s inability to create effective mechanisms to address Indigenous grievances and ensure a peaceful resolution of conflicts has eroded governance in the area.