The destiny of Mayans without land, victims of the civil war
By Gaelle Sevenier
Update: September 2004
Five hundred Mayan families have been living in misery for more than a year alongside the highway to Champerico, some 200 kilometers from Guatemala City. Despite the official attempt to ignore their existence, these victims of the civil war are still hoping for the land, food and education promised by their government and the Guatemalan Peace Accords.
Ripped plastic tents, mud, rain, hunger, contaminated water, continuous danger due to passing high-speed cars and trucks. This is the daily life of 500 indigenous Guatemalan families, living between kilometer 206 and 207 on the highway to the Pacific coast from Retalhuleu to Champerico. At the start of the demonstration there were more than 1,600 families but after one year of deprivation, frustration and pain, most have left.
The campesinos and their families come from different regions of the country: San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quetzaltenango, Suchitepéquez, Totonicapán, Sololá, Jutiapa, Jalapa and Retalhuleu. Most of them were refugees in Mexico during the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. When the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, the government promised that upon their return, their land would be returned to them. What was promised never came true, and, due to the international coffee crisis, the Mayans were kicked out last year from the land where they had managed to find employment after their return to Guatemala.
Since October 2001, the families have had no other option but to squat on the side of the road, a public move to pressure the government to finally recognize their plight. The farmers, who have nothing left but their determination, have managed to organize themselves creating the organization "Mayas Sin Tierra" (Mayans Without Land). Gilmar Vallejos Velasquez, who also uses the alias Elias Mendez, is the General Secretary of the organization. According to him, his entire community was asleep, but the pain and the economic situation made them wake up: "We will not allow ourselves to be the slaves anymore of those who rob us of our rights, our land, our jobs, which is how they have become millionaires since they have always given us the minimum."
Farmers for generations, the squatters do not consider themselves to be "invaders," as some have labeled, and they fail to understand why the government gives a priority to the "Spanish" ladinos over them. According to the General Secretary, their aim is not only to have land to cultivate, but also to raise their entire community to a better condition.
The government denies having resources to offer the "promised land" cited in the Peace Accords. Meanwhile in a controversial move, the administration is to offer compensation and indemnity to the ex-"civil self-defense patrols" (PACs), the local men recruited by the army during the war to form the civil militias, whom, despite the widespread belief, participated in mass killings.
Velasquez is indignant. "Our country says that there is no money for us, but for the ex-PAC we can see it is not doing the right thing. [ ] How can it be that those who previously carried out massacres for the government are now awarded 20,000 Quetzales each? [around $3,000]."
Francisco Perrez Ramires, another representative of the community adds, "During the war, with the help of the civil patrols, the militaries killed most of our companions, our brothers in the country. It is wrong to give them indemnity, on the contrary they should be punished as they owe a debt to society. This is unfair "
Unfair describes their life. One of the men of the community, Janaro Arrollo, offers a painful testimony: "As you can see, the plastic tents are breaking, the wind is taking them away, we get wet this is all so painful for us. And the rich people live well, eat well. We see them driving down the road they have money and land that they do not even use "
The children have missed classes for the past year, as there is no school nearby. To survive, the squatters operate a rotation system to look for work, sometimes far away from the coast. Some go for a few days and earn Q15 to Q27 daily ($2 to $3.50), insufficient to meet the basic needs of the family. They return to camp as others leave. The meager medical supplies do not cure the children's diseases due to the cold at night, the humidity, and the endless rain. They drink contaminated water from temporary wells they have been forced to dig, as they have been denied access to the river nearby. In March, in a tragic accident, Marina Marisela Ortiz Pérez, aged four, fell into a well and was drowned.
Instead of honest media coverage, the group claims that Guatemalan newspapers have misrepresented their situation. El Periodico, March 18, ran a feature about the community, "False Identities, Contraband and Money." The article mentions that the squatters are being paid Q500 to Q1,000 Quetzals ($80 to $150) to occupying the side of the high-way, that they are involved with drug deals, that they own weapons and that Elias Mendez lied about his identity. The community denies these accusations. The General Secretary explains that at first in order to protect his own life as well as the welfare of his family, he used the alias.
Article 35 of the Guatemalan Republic Constitution states, "Anyone who is libeled has the right to publish his/her defense, clarifications and rectifications." El Periodico appears obligated to publish the organization's defense. After eight months the community still waits for their side to be represented in the national media.
Since the newspaper revealed the spokesman's true identity, Velasquez claims he has received death threats. The community believes they come from some coastal landlords, who are sending vehicles with polarized windows, sometimes without license plates, circling around two or three times during the day or night. "If they kill me, I believe it is not going to solve anything, except that it will give more strength to my companions to keep up the fight," declares Gilmar Vallejos Velasquez. "They lie about us, and if tomorrow they kill us, they will say it is for the drug trafficking." Since their country will be holding presidential elections in 2003, the Mayan organization is not declaring for whom they will vote. "A companion can disappear, and people will say: "it is for going into political matters that they have killed him." Things do not have to be that way..." laments the General Secretary.
Starved of support, the group is now appealing to the international community: "We are asking, at the international level, that they make our President realize that we, too, are Guatemalan," says the Mayas Sin Tierra's spokesman. "If we must remain here one or two years more until we reach our objective, we are prepared. What we keep telling ourselves is that it is better to die fighting than to die of hunger."
Gilmar Vallejos Velasquez (Elias Mendez) and the Mayans Without Land, living alongside the highway since October 2001
The Promised-Land by the Peace Accords: a "Bad Interpretation"
In the Peace Accords, the "Agreement on Resettlement of the Population Groups Uprooted by the Armed Conflict", states that the Guatemalan government has the obligation to resettle the population who have abandoned their land as a result of armed conflicts: "In this context, it shall promote the return of land to the original holders and/or shall seek adequate compensatory solutions."
On May 14th 1997, in order to execute the Peace Accords, the government created the "Land Fund" (Fondo de Tierras). The organization is dedicated to giving credits and subsidies to the farmers who have either no land or insufficient land. The three-year process includes an interest rate that can be as high as any bank in the country. According to José Vicenti Ajpop, Regional Coordinator of "Fundo de Tierras" in Quetzaltenango, "the peace accords have been badly interpreted. It has never been said that the government was going to offer the land."
Instead of resettling the uprooted groups, victims of the civil war, the "Land Fund" functions as a bank, making profit, and contributing to the debt of those who have already lost everything.
Well with contaminated water that the community has been forced to dig as they have been denied access to the river nearby.
The Civil Patrol (PACs) Violations
Alfonso Portillo, actual President of the Guatemalan Republic, promised to give indemnities to the ex-Civilian Self-defense Patrols, who were formed by the Guatemalan army in late 1981. The main function of the PACs was to involve the communities in the army's anti-guerrilla offensive.
"In the testimonies compiled by REMHI, civil patrols were responsible
for 12.76 percent of all incidents and military commissioners for 7.44
percent. Taken together, one of every five incidents reported can be attributed
to these irregular government forces. Civil patrols participated in murders
(3.4 percent of all violations), torture and other cruel treatment (2
percent), forced disappearance (1.82), irregular detention (1.8 percent),
and threats (1.18 percent). Civil patrols, together with military commissioners,
are implicated in one in five cases of deaths resulting from the persecution
of people seeking refuge in uninhabited areas (1.3 percent of the total
number of documented violations).
Guatemala Nunca Más
The Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese
How to contact the organisation Mayas Sin Tierra:
Update, September 2004
|1. Concern over Yesterday's Events in the Finca Nueva Plantation
2. 7 Squatters Die in Police Clash in Guatemala
3. Seven die as police, farmers clash in Guatemala
1. Concern over Yesterday's Events in the Finca Nueva Plantation
The Mutual Support Group has provided background events that lead up
1. In need of land, a group of campesinos occupied land by the side
The occupation of the Nueva Linda plantation was a direct result of
Authorities never attempted to negotiate with the campesinos, or to
Unfortunately in the interests of protecting private property and impunity,
According to witnesses, at least one of the campesinos was extra-judicially
The rule of law and democracy in Guatemala must not be jeopardized
GAM demands that the authorities clarify the events of August 31, and
September 1, 2004
CHAMPERICO, Guatemala, Aug. 31 - At least 7 people were killed and
Witnesses and radio reports said a battle erupted when about 2,000
"This is like the war of the 1980's," said an ambulance worker,
Four of the dead at the ranch were squatters, Mr. Morales said. Radio
Witnesses said about 50 heavily armed soldiers arrived later with government
"This type of action should stay in the past," said Rigoberta
Radio reports said soldiers and the police were preparing to evict
The government-appointed human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, expressed
The government blamed the violence on criminals intent on destabilizing
The squatters say they occupied the ranch last year to protest the
Guatemala has a bloody history of conflict over land.
A United Nations-backed report published in 1999 said more than 200,000
In recent years, tens of thousands of Guatemalans have occupied farms
Landless farm workers resisted police attempts to remove them from
Police and hospital officials said at least four officers died of gunshots
Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann told reporters that the landless
After the initial, deadly clash, the farmworkers pulled back to a
President Oscar Berger called the land invaders "a clandestine
The area is known for large cattle ranches and corn farms and it was