Backstage Guatemala

The destiny of Mayans without land, victims of the civil war

By Gaelle Sevenier
October 2002

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).

The civil patrols are identified as the perpetrators in nearly one in five massacres (18.12 percent), while the military commissioners are identified in one in twenty (5.38 percent). Taken together, these irregular government forces were responsible for one out of every four collective murders."


Guatemala Nunca Más
(Guatemala Never Again)

The Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala


How to contact the organisation Mayas Sin Tierra:

Representante Gilmar Vallejos Velasquez, CHAMPERICO Km 206-207 Departamento Retalhuleu

- Author - Publications - More pictures

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
Sept 1, 2004
Report by GAM
Yesterday, six campesinos and three police officers were killed, and dozens
were wounded and beaten in a clash between the two groups at the Nueva Linda
Plantation, in Champerico, Retalhuleu. Since September 5, 2003, the
campesinos had peacefully settled on the land.

The Mutual Support Group has provided background events that lead up to
yesterday's tragedy.

1. In need of land, a group of campesinos occupied land by the side of a
road between Retalhuleu and Champerico (on the Pacific coast) for two years.
With the assistance of a number of social organizations, the campesinos were
granted the Monte Cristo farm by the Guatemalan Land Fund.
2. One of the beneficiaries of the Monte Cristo land grant was Hector René
Reyes, who, in spite of working as the administrator for the Nueva Linda
Plantation, became the leader of the campesinos at Monte Cristo. The owner
of the Nueva Linda Plantation opposed René Reyes’ decision to live at the
Monte Cristo farm.
3. A few days after the Monte Cristo farm was allotted to the campesinos, a
bodyguard of the owner of the Nueva Linda Plantation paid a visit to René
Reyes, with the pretext of picking up shotguns, and other arms that were on
the Nueva Linda plantation.
4. The bodyguard asked René Reyes to accompany them on a visit of the
and other properties of the owner. Hours later the bodyguards returned
without René Reyes, saying that they had left René Reyes in Retalhuleu.
From that moment forward, he has not been seen again.
5. In protest of the disappearance of René Reyes, the campesinos from Monte
Cristo occupied the Nueva Linda plantation on September 5, 2003. Other
campesino associations from the region immediately supported them.
6. Testimonies have provided information that drug trafficking is related to
plantation owners in the region, without authorities investigating the
illegal activity. Allegedly to protect themselves from the drug traffickers,
the campesinos thought it best to arm themselves.

The occupation of the Nueva Linda plantation was a direct result of the
disappearance of René Reyes, who besides administrating the farm was a
regional campesino leader. The crime was not investigated, and in order to
pressure the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Public Prosecutor's Office
(MP), the campesinos took action by settling on the plantation.

Authorities never attempted to negotiate with the campesinos, or to further
investigate the disappearance. Instead, the plantation owner and
authorities sought out a court order to evict the campesinos. The campesinos
were prepared to resist the eviction and were heavily armed, high caliber
weapons included, although the origin of the weapons cannot be explained.

Unfortunately in the interests of protecting private property and impunity,
authorities resorted to violence rather than promoting dialogue and
negotiations with the campesinos in order to comply with their just demands.

According to witnesses, at least one of the campesinos was extra-judicially
executed, and several journalists were attacked by security forces. These
are crimes that must be clarified, and cannot remain in impunity. GAM
publicly proposes the creation of a multi-sectoral commission, composed of
officials from the executive and legislative branches, the Human Rights
Ombudsman's Office, the Public Prosecutor's Office, and non-governmental
human rights organizations to clarify the events from yesterday, August 31,

The rule of law and democracy in Guatemala must not be jeopardized by
allowing illegal groups to operate in the country, but neither should
authorities be allowed to beat, torture, and attack campesinos prior to
extra-judicially executing them.

GAM demands that the authorities clarify the events of August 31, and arrest
the perpetrators and punish them within the full extent of the law.

September 1, 2004
2. 7 Squatters Die in Police Clash in Guatemala

CHAMPERICO, Guatemala, Aug. 31 - At least 7 people were killed and 15
wounded Tuesday when riot police officers tried to evict squatters armed
with assault weapons from a Guatemalan ranch, according to radio reports and
ambulance crews.

Witnesses and radio reports said a battle erupted when about 2,000 police
arrived at the Nueva Linda cattle ranch, near Champerico, in southern
Guatemala, and were met by a crowd of about 3,000 people, some armed with
assault rifles.

"This is like the war of the 1980's," said an ambulance worker, Wilfred
Morales. Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended eight years ago.

Four of the dead at the ranch were squatters, Mr. Morales said. Radio
reports said three policemen were killed.

Witnesses said about 50 heavily armed soldiers arrived later with government
officials. The squatters retreated to trenches.

"This type of action should stay in the past," said Rigoberta Menchú, who
won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work for Guatemala's indigenous peoples
and is now a member of the government. "This will need a major follow-up, we
need to do a chronology of events and find out why this happened," she said.

Radio reports said soldiers and the police were preparing to evict more
squatters from a neighboring farm on Tuesday evening.

The government-appointed human rights ombudsman, Sergio Morales, expressed
outrage at the government's decision to use force and called for
negotiation. "How is it possible that people want to resolve the problems of
this country with bullets?" he asked reporters.

The government blamed the violence on criminals intent on destabilizing the
country. "This is a group organized militarily with high caliber weapons,"
President Oscar Berger told reporters.

The squatters say they occupied the ranch last year to protest the
kidnapping of a ranch-hand, allegedly by the owners.

Guatemala has a bloody history of conflict over land.

A United Nations-backed report published in 1999 said more than 200,000
people were killed or disappeared during the civil war, most of them Mayan
Indians killed in army-led massacres that formed part of a "scorched earth"
campaign to root out leftist insurgents.

In recent years, tens of thousands of Guatemalans have occupied farms
looking for land to cultivate or hoping to win labor disputes.

3. Seven die as police, farmers clash in Guatemala
The Associated Press
August 31, 2004, Tuesday, BC cycle

Landless farm workers resisted police attempts to remove them from a farm
they had occupied in southern Guatemala Tuesday and at least four police
officers and three farmers died in the battle, according to officials.

Police and hospital officials said at least four officers died of gunshots
during the clash at the Nueva Linda farm in the area of Retalhuleu, about
110 miles southwest of the capital. Officials said at least three farm
workers also died.

Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann told reporters that the landless farmers
used automatic weapons to open fire on police who had arrived at the scene
armed only with shields, tear gas and batons with an order to remove the

After the initial, deadly clash, the farmworkers pulled back to a
neighboring property while police searched Nueva Linda. Soldiers with faces
painted black were waiting in reserve.

President Oscar Berger called the land invaders "a clandestine faction ready
to kill." He said the group, apparently made up of people displaced from
other parts of Guatemala, had earlier rejected offers to negotiate.

The area is known for large cattle ranches and corn farms and it was once a
cotton-growing area.

Max L. Gimbel
Director of Research
Guatemala Human Rights Commission
3321 12th St. NE
Washington DC 20017
fax - 202.526.4611