Indigenous people in Guatemala and Honduras (III): repression and the abandonment of the State

According to Udefegua documentation, in 2020 at least eight indigenous people of different nationalities or Guatemalan ethnic groups have been killed

The first part of this report, Indigenous people in “Colombia (I): between massacres, displacement and drug trafficking, dealt with violence against indigenous communities in that country. The second work,Indigenous people in Mexico and Peru (II): between fear, dispossession and criminalization, related how the cases of gunmen, fights over territory and government restrictions have exacerbated the reality of these peoples.

Now, we will address the realities that native populations live in two Central American countries. In Guatemala and Honduras. These communities are constant victims of repression, dispossession and kidnapping. But, also of the criminalization and the abandonment by the State.

In general terms, violence against indigenous communities in Latin America has intensified in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic is today a determining factor in the growing numbers of this scourge.

Guatemala: indigenous people suffer dispossession and repression

In the aforementioned report, Rigoberto Juárez talks about the indigenous reality as a mixture of conviction and terror: “We have suffered an escalation of violent land dispossession”.

Juárez is the ancestral leader of the plurinational government of the West (Oeste), a territorial authority for the indigenous nationalities of Guatemala, Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Akateco and Popti, in the department of Huehuetenango.

These are some of the 23 indigenous groups that exist in Guatemala. Juárez says that the government has already granted 27 licenses for mining companies and 23 for hydroelectric plants that will operate on their territories. That is why he is overwhelmed and worried by the possibility of the extermination of their cultures, their ideologies, and even their lives.

The general coordinator of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (Udefegua), Pedro Santos, reaffirms that there is a strategy behind the violent expropriation of land, through extrajudicial mechanisms, and the absence of the State to protect the Indigenous villages.

This responds to a development model that, in addition to hydroelectric plants, is committed to monocultures, mining and large infrastructures that are being implemented on indigenous communities.

In this regard, Juárez indicates that in the course of the pandemic there has been an increase in threats, persecution, injuries and murders. And that happens precisely in the places where megaprojects are located.

Rigoberto Juárez

The State against indigenous communities

Juárez adds that in the ancestral territories intervened by the State, cases of criminalization are increasing. That includes the imprisonment of indigenous people who oppose projects in defense of their lands.

The restrictions due to the pandemic — Pedro Santos remarks — nullify the possibility of native organizations to organize themselves so as to fight the injustices. The same happens with their desire to create a process of solidarity through protests. “They are taking advantage to deepen the violence against human rights”, he says.

In 2019, Udefegua registered 494 attacks against men and women human rights defenders, of which 111 were attacks on indigenous people who were protecting their territories.

Between January and June of this year, the NGO reported 677 attacks, also in the area of defenders. However, it has not yet been disaggregated how many attacks involved indigenous people.

In this regard, Santos explains that the string of evictions during the expansion of the coronavirus would skyrocket the numbers of aggression compared to 2019.

As detailed, two of the most violent dispossessions have occurred in the Washington and Dos Fuentes communities. There, more than 80 families of the Q’eqchi ethnic group were affected: there were two assassination attempts, the criminalization of one leader and the forced disappearance of another, identified as Carlos Coy.

In addition, the Udefegua coordinator notes that ‘states of exception’ are being used, in the context of the pandemic, to generate processes of repression and social control of indigenous groups, and in particular of the Q’eqchi population.

According to Udefegua documentation, in 2020 at least eight indigenous people of different nationalities or Guatemalan ethnic groups have been killed. With this, the amount registered in 2019 was equaled.

Regarding the impact of COVID-19, Santos refers that the State has been seriously questioned on the information that it makes public on the number of people infected.

In the reports that the State makes public of the contagion, there is not even a section that contemplates the indigenous population. Its most specific reference is that the departments hardest hit — Izabal, San Marcos and Huehuetenango — are the ones with the largest native communities.

Honduras: kidnappings and criminalization

On July 18, four environmental defenders of the Garífuna ethnic group were kidnapped in the community of Triunfo de la Cruz, by a group of armed men. Relatives of the victims denounce that the kidnappers wore police uniforms.

Berta Zúñiga, general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), maintains that until now, the State has no will to give an explanation about the whereabouts of the defenders. Nor do they refer to the use of the judicial system to persecute those who are defending their territory.

The hostages were opposed to the imposition of tourism projects in the coastal region of Honduras, where their ethnic group is settled. But that is just one of the problems that the nine indigenous peoples of the Central American country face.

Others have to do with the concessions of their lands for the implementation of mining and power generation projects. A situation that, according to Zúñiga, has been accentuated in this period of spread of COVID-19.

“There is a systematic disrespect for the native peoples self-determination and their right to prior consultation”, denounces the leader, who warns that while the rights of indigenous people are being violated, megaprojects are approved that obtain safe conduct or environmental permits in just 15 days .

Indigenous communities find out about the large constructions on their land when the projects are already underway. Copinh works directly with the indigenous people of the Lenca ethnic group, a people who have faced the construction of hydroelectric projects in their territory.

Displacement and State repression

In March 2016, the ecologist Berta Cáceres, mother of Berta Zúñiga, was murdered. They killed her for defending her community against one of these projects.

Today, the Lenca community also faces threats from wind and photovoltaic projects. For that — Zúñiga points out — the same occupation protocol and violation of the right to prior consultation are used.

“It is a pattern that projects are implemented against the will of the communities and using state security forces”, he says.

In the Yoro region, the organization that registers the conflicts in the Tolupán people is the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ).

For the Tolupans, mining in their territory has a long history and a bloody record. In August 2013, three of them were killed while protesting against the excavations. In February 2019 two were shot to death, and in September of the same year the body of another tolupán appeared in a common grave.

With the expansion of the coronavirus — indicates David Alachán, member of the MADJ — in Honduras the ‘handing over’ of forests of the Tolupán people to private projects, the threats and the unjust criminalization of the indigenous people have also worsened.

For example — explains Alachán — the Tolupán, Amado Cabrera, and eight other indigenous people of that ethnic group have been criminalized by a logging company that exploited the forest of the San Francisco Locomapa indigenous population without prior consultation.

Impunity and disrespect for the environment

“Impunity continues to be the main support found by the murderers of social activists in Honduras”, says David Alachán. He adds that, in the last seven years, 10 Tolupans have been murdered for opposing mining exploitation and the unconsulted extraction of wood.

For Ben Leather, of Global Witness, with the spread of COVID-19 there was an increase in the tactics used by the States and companies to repress defenders of the land and the environment.

In this evolution of the methods, murder is the strongest point to silence those who speak out in defense of their territories.

In this development of strategies — Leather explains — the criminalization of indigenous people and forced displacement have become quite effective practices to dismantle communities and freeze their protection or protest activities.

“Mongabay Latam tried to obtain the version of the authorities of the countries that have registered the acts of violence described against indigenous populations so far this year, but until the closing of the report we did not receive a response”, they explained to the media.

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