Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 376 | Noviembre 2012



Totonicapán: The story of the first massacre since the peace

On October 4 the army opened fire on indigenous protestors demonstrating for a just cause in the strategic Totonicapán area, whose indigenous population is unusually well organized. This is the chronicle of the events, the historical and political context, the messages left and the lessons learned from this conflict.

Ricardo Falla

On Wednesday October 3, I was in Quetzaltenango giving a workshop on Mayan leadership to young indigenous people when we were alerted by people there who were from Totonicapán, an hour away, that there would be a demonstration the following day. I ended up having to sleep over in Quetzaltenango because the arriving demonstrators had blocked traffic at a junction called Cuatro Caminos.

As in the times of armed conflict

The next day I heard on the news that six people had been killed. With their customary assurance that they would not be contradicted, the government minister, Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio López Bonilla, and the defense minister, General Ulises Anzueto, declared that the police and army reserves carried only “non-lethal weapons” and the wounds were from “tumultuous confrontations,” implying that the dead were killed by the demonstrators themselves, described as a dangerous “mob.” They argued that most of the wounds on the peasants appeared to have been done by machetes. Although I had no information to the contrary, I was immediately reminded of the Army’s version of events when they massacred civilians during the armed conflict.

The President of the Republic called for calm, but changed the facts. “Please, please, stay calm; we’ve been here with the leaders since 8 this morning.” But he actually didn’t meet the demonstration’s leaders, who brought their list of demands to the capital city, until that afternoon; after people had been killed. The President’s lie would only be revealed the following day.

I then managed to communicate with someone in Totonicapán who had been at Cuatro Caminos, but not on Alaska summit where the massacre took place. He told me that the Special Police Forces (FEP) had been close to Cuatro Caminos but no one had been killed there. He said both the demonstrators on the summit and the wounded in the hospital were sure the Army had fired on them. He also said he heard that a military helicopter had circled, first over the demonstrators on Alaska and then those at Cuatro Caminos, dropping some kind of bombs, presumably tear gas. He and other leaders at Cuatro Caminos were worried when they heard what was happening on the hill, and had made calls at three in the afternoon to try to access the government through third parties, me included, to stop the massacre. But these calls weren’t recorded on my cell phone, which made us think that there was interference to block calls in certain targeted areas, as happened in San Félix, Chiriquí (Panama) when the Ngöbe people cut off the Pan-American Highway in January of this year.

The massacre’s venue

The Inter-American Highway heads west from Guatemala City, crossing broken mountainous terrain, almost entirely through ancestral Mayan lands, until reaching the border with Mexico. After about 100 miles it passes a huge town called Nahualá, many of whose residents have now migrated to New York, then winds its way up to the summit called Alaska, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. Before crossing the summit a turnoff to the right leads to New Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, another K’iche’ village, then the road drops down to Totonicapán. The blockade was at that turnoff point, which is called Cuatro Caminos.

Cuatro Caminos is just that: a crossroads. Much of the power of Totonicapán’s famous 48 Cantons organization comes from the fact that this municipality is situated close to it and has the organizational capability to block its exits. Controlling this point shakes the country: it’s like blocking an artery carrying blood from the heart.

“Otto Pérez assassin”

Very early in the morning on October 5, I headed to Totonicapán on my motorbike to see the parish priests and some friends. They were holding a wake for the dead. The atmosphere was tense with both grief and indignation. The coffin lids were open. Several of the deceased had their eyes open. They were all about 35 years old and looked alive.

Later, as I was leaving, I stopped in the park in front of the municipal government offices, where there is a statue of Atanasio Tzul, the historic leader of Totonicapán. In 1820, a year before Guatemala became an independent republic he and Lucas Aguilar rebelled against paying taxes to the State and for church services and declared himself King of Totonicapán and nearby towns. The K’iche of Totonicapán see him as a symbol of resistance.

A group of young people had arrived with a couple of pieces of black cloth, which they were draping over the statue. Most assuredly, Totonicapán was in mourning, but it was also a powder keg that any spark could set off. The youths told me that some people wanted to burn down the municipal offices but the communal authorities’ good sense and organization stopped them.

The relationship between the Municipal Council and the 48 Cantons was so extremely tense because while many people in Totonicapán had voted for the ruling Patriotic Party (PP) mayor, President Otto Pérez Molina, also from this party, had now paradoxically murdered them. This was how events were interpreted on the two cloths hung on the monument, which said: “Otto Pérez assassin” and “Mauricio López Bonilla assassin.”

A revealing photograph

The massacre shocked the country and the gradual revelation of what had happened gave the news an interest and continuity that few news items possess these days. Who was telling the truth and who lied? Did the government cover up what happened? We all knew who said what and if the evidence contradicted it.

The day after the massacre, some newspapers published a photograph from the Spanish news agency EFE that had
an enormous impact. It showed a soldier holding a Galil rifle, unquestionably a “lethal” weapon, in firing position. The billboards in the background and the sandy soil showed that he was where the events took place, proving that the government minister, flanked by the defense minister, had lied the previous day.

Prensa Libre, a conservative newspaper that has been protecting the image of the President—a former soldier—had to publish the photograph to avoid lagging behind El Periódico, which ran it on the front page over the caption: “A soldier wielding a rifle, even though the authorities claimed they weren’t armed.”

“They fired into the air”

After the wake in the 48 Cantons’ headquarters on October 5, the six bodies were carried to the Atanasio Tzul monument and given their final farewell in the San Miguel Park before being buried in their own communities’ graveyards.

Meanwhile, the struggle for truth continued in the media. “Controversy throughout the country,” said Prensa Libre. Everyone was waiting for the government’s version. President Pérez Molina stated in a press conference: “Seven soldiers admit they fired into the air.” While he seemed to be excusing them by emphasizing that they fired into the air, the key point of his version was the admission that the soldiers had been armed, contradicting the minister’s statement the previous day.

The President’s story endorsed one version of what happened as truth: violence had been triggered when a private security guard on a truck loaded with cement fired on the demonstrators. The seven soldiers who fired—of a reported ten who were armed—reportedly did so “because they feared for his life, as the truck was burning and people weren’t letting the truck’s driver get down. They fired because people were saying they were going to burn them.” What’s remarkable is the coolness with which Guatemala’s President gave statements at such a critical time without realizing that the country is at a democratic point where the media and public opinion won’t swallow just any report and that cell phones with little cameras are everywhere.

It later became evident that the soldiers had fired to kill, unmasking the President as his regime’s and own violence and lies became apparent. Even in the midst of tragedy, many people rejoiced because the Totonicapán massacre had shattered this government’s carefully constructed image.

The version falls apart

Early the morning of October 5, Rigoberta Menchú, lit by the sun on the summit, gathered up 5.56 caliber bullet shells, which are used by Galils. She handed them over to the Human Rights Ombudsman, who said that the Public Ministry (MP) was the institution that should clarify the facts.

By then, President Pérez Molina had decided that the MP would investigate the events and, for the first time ever, it was permitted to enter the Honor Guard to do interviews. The soldiers’ rifles were packed up and turned over to it for ballistic tests. But the MP investigators still hadn’t shown up at the scene to examine the bodies by the time the people took them away. So “the crime scene” was contaminated and not cordoned off, which allowed Rigoberta to find all the casings.

The media showed up in force that same day. El Periódico obtained testimonies from those who stated that people had been shot in the legs. One of the wounded said he thought the soldiers were shooting into the air but realized they weren’t when he saw blood on his pants and couldn’t run any more. By the time of this writing, a full month after the massacre, the MP still hasn’t publicly signed off on exactly how the Army began to fire on people and what responsibility that private guard had in the course of events.

The next day, Saturday October 6, Prensa Libre topped the effect of the famous EFE photograph by publishing another one—this one enlarged and from Associated Press—of the same soldier in the same combat position with his finger on the trigger. He wore a riot uniform and therefore should not have been armed. By now, the presidential version that the soldiers had fired into the air had become ridiculous.

Credible investigation

Meanwhile, Father Luis Gregorio Bautista Gómez, church deacon for the department of Totonicapán and coordinator of the parishes in the Totonicapán pastoral area, had called on October 5 to invite us to a meeting in Totonicapán the next day to hear what the local Catholic Church would say about these events. The statement would be read on Sunday in all the parishes and our position would reach the Archdiocese of Los Altos and beyond.

The text said, among other things: “Inlight of the tragic events that took place last Thursday, October 4, resulting in at least eight dead and a larger number wounded… we priests of the Totonicapán pastoral area sincerely join in the grief of the fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the deceased and ask for the help they need and urge our national and departmental authorities to come forward with the help that in justice we owe them….

“We demand a credible investigation and not one fraught with contradictions such as has so far been the official government version: ‘they were unarmed… ‘they fired into the air,’ etc. We hold the government responsible for this massacre by sending armed soldiers to confront a citizens’ demonstration. This is the crux of the matter. And we warn that not only certain individuals are to be blamed, such as the security agent or individual soldiers, making them into scapegoats and excusing the government for progressively militarizing the country. And we ask our political and judicial authorities to be honest and brave in finding and punishing those who are guilty. The people need it and are clamoring for it.

“We emphasize that this is not just a passing event but government policy backed by power groups that discriminate against indigenous peoples and do not give concrete answers to their basic needs. We defend the right of the 48 Cantons to demonstrate in order to be heard and for their demands to be promptly addressed provided that this demonstration addresses their fundamental interests,is peaceable and doesn’t expose their people to death....”

A policy of progressive militarization

The crux of the matter, as the statement said, was that the government confronted a citizens’ demonstration with armed soldiers. Whether or not they attacked first, fired into the air or at the demonstrators or received the order to attack from a superior were all important questions, but were not the crucial one. So, already that day, once the MP began its investigations, we feared it would blame scapegoats, leaving the architects of the current government’s policy of progressive militarization free of responsibility. The ones ultimately responsible were the rulers, including the country’s President. The military now in government aren’t even the ones who designed the government’s socioeconomic structure that discriminates against indigenous peoples. They are merely its representatives. The structure itself is led by power groups that require armed guards to do their dirty work for them and defend their interests.

Decree 40-2000, whose article 1 allows that “civilian security forces may be supported in their duties of preventing and fighting organized crime and common delinquency,” dates back to June 7, 2000, when Alfonso Portillo was President and General Efraín Ríos Montt, former head of State through a coup, was president of the Congress. But that decree was established “to fight organized crime and delinquency,” not peaceful demonstrations, even if they block the highways. Only a twisting of the law can interpret the blocking of highways as the result of organized crime or delinquency.

“It’s not war, it’s a demonstration”

President Pérez Molina made no public appearances the weekend of October 6 and 7, other than his appearance on television that Sunday night to ask for respect for the law and the authorities. The next day, however, he set about repairing his battered image before the international community. Chancellor Harold Caballeros prepared a meeting for him with the ambassadors. The President was flanked by his big guns: on his right Government Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, National Commissioner for Dialogue Miguel Angel Balcárcel and Presidential Commissioner for Rural Development Adrián Zapata; and on his left Chancellor Caballeros and Minister for Peace Antonio Arenales.

The diplomats questioned the use of the Army to dislodge the protestors. US Ambassador Arnold Chacón admonished that it’s not the Army’s role to act in such situations. Israel’s Ambassador Eliahú López added that “it’s not a war, or an armed conflict, it’s a demonstration, which you must be able to handle,” arguing rightly that soldiers aren’t trained to mediate in social conflicts. The representative from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala stressed that “the risk of using military forces for public security tasks is very high.”

The President replied with a very generous, but rhetorical and vague promise: “The protocols that we have to review, we will review. The security processes that we have to review, we will review. The changes that we have to make, we will make.” And, wanting to shake off the ghost of war that haunts him, he added: “The international community knows we don’t fight. It wasn’t considered an option. You know that isn’t our policy, you know we’ve had 338 dislodgings in 270 days and this is the first time we have had an unfortunate accident.”

He pledged to review security protocols, including the Army’s involvement in such cases, but he didn’t promie to exclude it from now on. And in fact, he didn’t comply with his word, because five days later, on October 13, community members from the village of Los Laureles, in the municipality of La Libertad, Petén, retained 21 soldiers, 2 officers and 5 police agents, demanding that they stop their combined patrolling.

What are eight dead?

The chancellor’s intervention at the meeting with the diplomatic corps made him the laughingstock of all Guatemala, a country that best assimilates things taken to the ridiculous and enjoys them even in the midst of grief. Harold Caballeros said: “I acknowledge with sorrow that in certain parts of the world eight dead is a very big thing…. Although it sounds very bad to say so, we have twice as many as eight dead here every day. Therefore, it’s not really a big wake-up call.” He was criticized on the social networks and responded in Twitter that same day calling the critics “stupid” and “idiots,” although the next day he apologized: “Someone called me stupid and I reacted with my gut. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

In an open letter to the heads of the three branches of government on October 8, a long list of “students, academics, activists and all outraged national and foreign citizens” declared their solidarity with other organizations’ demanding the immediate dismissal of the government and defense ministers, those seen as ultimately responsible for the massacre. The next day, seven peasant organizations gathered in Totonicapán Park, convened by the National Mayan Convergence Waqib’ Kej, also to demand the dismissal not only of the two ministers but also of the chancellor. He was added to the list of ministers who have been asked to resign or were dismissed by the President.

The Right joins the fray

Almost immediately after October 4, pro-government commentaries appeared in the media. With some variations they insisted on these ideas in broad strokes: Calm, calm! We’re on the brink of anarchy and governability is in danger. Those who are responsible for this are leftwing agitators (alternatively called “terrorists” or “vandals”) who haven’t accepted their defeat in the armed conflict and want to take out the sting by resurrecting ghosts from the past. They need martyrs to advance their cause and now they’re satisfied and content because they found them in Totonicapán. It’s they who are causing continual, illegal blockades of the highways, violating the right to freedom of movement, causing losses amounting to millions of dollars for the economy and weakening free enterprise’s competition. Some of the most radical went so far as to call the President “indolent” and warned that the government is playing with fire and doesn’t have to consider these people. It must ensure freedom of movement, punish any Guatemalan outlaw and investigate the Totonicapán demonstrators, who started burning trucks and attacking soldiers. The soldiers aren’t to be blamed for the deaths; they defended themselves from a horrible death, being burned alive. While claiming to deeply regret what happened on Alaska summit, they insisted that the dead weren’t innocent victims, as argued by the foreigners who are allied to these leftwing leaders and may even eventually take the President up before international tribunals. They even criticized the media for not having been sufficiently clear in unmasking outdated leftist positions.

So events unfolded...

On Thursday, October 11, a week after the events, the MP, which had deployed 125 prosecutors, 50 crime scene investigators and Directorate of Criminal Research technicians and 10 analysts from its Analysis Unit, presented the results of that work. They admitted having collected 108 shell casings, 89 remnants of tear-gas canisters, 11 blood samples, 18 pieces of clothing and 12 Galil rifles. They used 69 expert reports from the National Institute of Forensic Science, analyzed more than 50 photos and videos, took more than 150 statements and processed a square kilometer of the crime scene. All was presented in Power Point and flew through the Internet.

The investigation explains that the Army arrived at the demonstration with two truckloads of soldiers—36 in the first truck and 47 in the second—plus a pickup carrying the operation’s commander, Colonel Juan Chiroy Sal, and 6 more soldiers. Of the 90 soldiers, the 6 in the pickup were armed, as was the colonel, plus 3 in the first truck, one of whom was female, and 4 in the second. The 13 armed soldiers wore field uniforms and each carried the rifle and ammunition bags. The “civilian” elements wore helmets, teargas masks, shoulder pads, knee pads and bulletproof vests and were carrying transparent shields that could protect virtually their whole body.

While the MP doesn’t say this, the armed soldiers were equipped with a “lethal” attack weapon—i.e. one that kills—supposedly to defend themselves, the “civilians” and the vehicles, but were completely unarmed against stone throwing, which is why it’s no surprise that the armed young woman in the first truck came out with a face injury. It’s also why it’s no surprise that, with no shield, helmet or vest for protection, they defended themselves with bullets when attacked with stones. They may well have first fired into the air, then at the legs and then to kill, but that’s precisely why it’s so dangerous to use war-trained armed personnel to break up demonstrations or remove blockades. They aren’t suitable for this purpose, because they aren’t equipped to defend themselves from civilians.

Bullets in the
back and the chest

According to the MP report, the contingent of soldiers left the Honor Guard in the capital city to go to Alaska between 9 and 10 in the morning. At that time, 80 FEP agents set out in several pickups, arriving before the Army. When the soldiers arrived, the FEP deputy commissioner signaled them to stop but the MP report says Colonel Chiroy ignored them and advanced. According to regulations, the soldiers should have been subordinate to the deputy commissioner, who was the head of the joint operation. In the first hearing before the court, Colonel Chiroy denied this but the court linked it to the case.

The MP gives no further details of how the fray proceeded, emphasizing technical more than testimonial aspects. It presented the ballistic results and traced the bullets’ trajectories, one by one, to each of the six deceased. The bullets entered José Eusebio Puac Barreno and Santos Nicolás Hernández Menchú from the back, probably as they were running away. The other four—Rafael Nicolás Batz Menchú, Jesús Baltazar Caxaj Puac, Arturo Félix Sapón Yax and Jesús Francisco Puac Ordoñez—were shot from the front, perhaps as they were throwing stones, like David at Goliath.

The MP only presented the investigation into these six cases, but we know the names of two others who were killed: Domingo Pascual Solís and Jesús Domingo Caniz. And then on October 27, the body of a third man appeared: Domingo Pablo Puac Vásquez, who was from the same community of Chi Puac as several of the six others and had been missing since October 4.

It was deduced from the research that seven rifles had been fired, but which bullet from which gun killed someone—a “ballistic match”—was only proved in one case. What’s clear is that 7 of the 13 armed soldiers fired their weapons.

Indigenous soldiers
against indigenous inhabitants

To summarize, the MP conclusively proved that the Army was responsible for the massacre: the soldiers fired and killed. The colonel was guilty of several crimes, the main one being not obeying the police order to stop and then abandoning the soldiers.

Although they investigated the soldiers’ involvement in a massacre, the like of which has never been done before, the MP’s work stopped below the higher chain of command, attributing all responsibility to the colonel by declaring that he disobeyed his police superior. Considering all the efforts and both human and technical resources deployed by the MP in this investigation, they left many stones unturned.

It’s noteworthy that more than two thirds of the soldiers used to suppress this demonstration were themselves clearly Mayan, as can be confirmed by their surnames. The other third may also be Mayan but that can’t be determined with certainty from their surnames alone. The commander was also indigenous.

First, we remember the armed conflict, when they trained indigenous troops to kill indigenous people, which is an argument often used today in an attempt to prove that there was no genocide. Second, when attributing blame, the ones they condemned were indigenous: that’s how racism works in Guatemala.

Totonicapán’s strong organization

With that the end of the investigative trail, let’s look turn to who the demonstrators were and what they were protesting. A communiqué of support from more than 25 European, Canadian, US and Guatemalan organizations mentions that the department of Totonicapán now has almost half a million inhabitants, 97% of Mayan origin. That data is based on both the presidency’s General Planning and Programming Ministry (SEGEPLAN) and the UNDP Human Development Report.

It’s one of the departments with the lowest percentage of homicides: 6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011 as against the national rate of 39 per 100,000. Some analysts have linked the lack of violence in the region to its degree of social cohesion, maintained through the strength of the traditional indigenous organization. One of the expressions of that organization is the Totonicapán municipality’s 48 Cantons, as it is called.

The municipality, which is also the departmental capital, has about 130,000 inhabitants, 97% of them indigenous and 53% rural. The municipality’s strength lies in its organization, which is rooted in indigenous tradition as well as in other factors such as the number of inhabitants and the mix of a high percentage of aware, educated, professionally trained, hard-to-fool people from the urban areas with an artisan and peasant rural population with migratory experience in the United States that has improved its standard of living, for example, with electrical appliances. In addition, their communal lands have forestry resources, aquatic riches from hundreds, perhaps even a thousand springs and a network of water pipes delivering this resource, which they duly maintain and defend against threats from mining and laws privatizing water. And finally, there’s the proximity of the Inter-American Highway, which they can block at certain times.

48 Cantons is a territorial organization

Here organization isn’t based on social class, although most of the members are poor. Nor is it a national peasant organization like the Committee for Peasant Unity (CUC), or one with experience tied to the guerrilla organizations from wartime. Totonicapán never suffered a massacre, unlike those in Quiché. 48 Cantons is a territorial organization that identifies with the history of struggle against taxes in 1820, when Atanasio Tzul was crowned king, on a par with King Ferdinand of Spain.

This territoriality drives national government crazy: indigenous people insist that civil servants go to Totonicapán for negotiations and won’t accept second or third parties because they want to talk with “the top honchos.” They are even criticized by other grassroots organizations who comment that the 48 Cantons only fight for their own.

With four keys and four padlocks

To capture this strong sense of identity, listen to what we were told by a friend from Totonicapán: “The public doesn’t have access to the town’s land titles... They are only reviewed twice a year. In Toto we say that a person who’s fulfilled his duty to his town has seen the town titles twice because it’s compulsory for anyone who gets to be mayor or sheriff, delegate for the baths or for natural resources, to be present for the review of the town’s documents. This happens in June and in December, before the changeover in authorities. There you can find the title to the forests of Los Altos; the title for the summit where María Tecúm is situated; the villages of Barreneche, La Esperanza and La Concordia; the communities of Chimente, Tzanixnam, Maktzul, Pachoc, Chomasan, Panquix, Rancho de Teja, Pacapox, Chuicaxtun, Chuipachec; all these communities...

“So, these titles are protected and guarded there in the San Miguel vault, in the annex, 24 hours a day. Although apparently the town is no longer indigenous, this vault has four keys and four padlocks. The mayor for the first fortnight has one key, the mayor for the second fortnight has another, the chairman of the 48 sheriffs has another and the alderman has the fourth.”

Toto isn’t a folkloric touristy municipality. Its indigenous strength is hidden in its struggles, so well hidden, in fact, that superficial observers see them as terrorists or a disorganized mob.

The highest authority is the 48 Cantons Council, a team of 45 people on 5 boards of directors, 9 on each. The mayors’ board is nominally the head, “but decisions are always made by the 5 boards and 5 assemblies.” The boards are made up of the mayors, the sheriffs for the first 15, the sheriffs for the second 15, delegates for the baths and the delegates for natural resources (water, forests, etc.). Each board in turn has a 48-member assembly. When the 5 boards and 5 assemblies are put together, there are theoretically 240 people, all with their symbols of authority: the famous silver-headed wand, a very ancient Mayan symbol although it used to have another form. More than 1,200 people come together when the assembly of authorities meets to make important decisions.

Why they blocked the
highway in the first place

In May 2011, the Spanish electricity distribution company Unión Fenosa, sold all its shares in Guatemala to Actis, the English Investment Fund, which changed the company’s name in Guatemala this past August from Distributors in the West (DEOCSA) and Distributors in the East (DEORSA) to Energuate. A little after Easter Week this year the 48 Cantons forced the minister for energy and mines, an Electricity Commission representative and the board of Energuate to come to Totonicapán to negotiate because they were unhappy with the electricity supply: increased rates, power outages burning up their electrical appliances, being charged for street lighting they don’t get, etc. Someone told me there were about 2,500 people at the meeting in the multi-purpose room.

It came out that the Municipal Council, which was also there, owed money to Unión Fenosa. It wasn’t made clear to the public where the money they had already paid had ended up: whether it had been stolen by the municipal mayor’s office or by Unión Fenosa. The meeting went nowhere, so there was a second and a third, but by then the “top honchos” were sending representatives rather than attending personally. The 48 Cantons told these lackeys: “Gentlemen, this matter isn’t with you, it’s with your bosses. We aren’t going to negotiate with you. Once your bosses come, or at least confirm that they’re coming, we will let you go free.” And they held them there.

The representatives lodged a complaint against the 48 Cantons, but also called their bosses, who promised to come in eight days’ time. But they didn’t show up, leaving everyone upset and worse. With that, the assembly of 2,000+ people decided to take their petition to Guatemala City. The petition had two other points in addition to requesting better electricity supply: rejection of an educational reform that added two years to teacher training and rejection of constitutional reforms that include an article about indigenous peoples that aroused mistrust.

To ensure they’d be listened to, they blockaded the highway after holding community assemblies where they asked: “Should we cut off the road or not?” That’s how the decision was taken.

Past uprisings by the 48 Cantons

In recent years the 48 Cantons have had five or six major struggles with the government, during which they’ve always sent a delegation to Guatemala City and put pressure on the highway. The first uprising in democratic times was in 1987, under the administration of President Vinicio Cerezo, when the Value Added Tax (VAT) law was amended. The people of Toto went into the Tax Offices, took out the tax forms and burned them, but since VAT is a tax automatically included on all consumer goods, it doesn’t need forms.

The second uprising occurred after the peace was signed, in President Arzú’s time, when a law was passed for a one-time-only real estate tax. In 2001, they once again protested about VAT when it was raised from 10 to 12%. That time the government decreed a state of siege throughout the department, even though only the departmental capital was involved in the protest. “Like now,” explained one, “the protest was generally peaceful, but someone went after the legislators and burned down the mayor’s house. They were looking for the house of municipal officials who, unfortunately, have been linked to the party making the amendments.” The mayor was Edgar Arévalo and the legislator was Iván Arévalo, two non-indigenous brothers who have been ruling Totonicapán for the last 20 years, which reveals the tension between municipal and traditional authorities. At the same time it shows that the 48 Cantons’ main weakness comes from the municipal authority, which is controlled by political parties, especially by Ríos Montt’s FGR (Guatemalan Republican Front) and now by the ruling Patriot Party.

The next uprising was in 2004, when indigenous peoples’ rights began to be publicized. This is when the notorious
Chi Yax case occurred. Three boys from outside of the community broke into a house and stole a sound system from an Adventist family while it was in church. The community of Chi Yax joined together and recovered the stolen goods from the thieves, burned their car and turned them over to the police.

The International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries had already been signed, and based on it the 48 Cantons’ authorities and the government’s justice authorities agreed that the community would judge the thieves, with the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman standing as guarantor. The community decided not to jail them but put them to work helping to build the Chi Yax School. The boys asked for the community’s forgiveness and after a month returned to their homes in Cantel and Momostenango.

The last uprising took place in 2009 and was against the mining company, when they blocked the passage of a cylinder to the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán. This time an agreement was reached with the government, which signed a commitment to cancel all mining exploration and exploitation licenses in the department and pledged not to endorse any more in the future. It’s a commitment the town can use, since the government pledged it on behalf of the State. Vice President Eduardo Stein came to sign it, witnessed by Monsignor Víctor Hugo Martínez, at that time bishop of Los Altos.

What the parties do and undo

The political parties have undercut the 48 Cantons’ power throughout the municipality. First and foremost, their fight for votes has divided the population a thousand ways, pushing and pulling it like a tug of war. One indication of this was seen in the 2011 Municipal Council elections, whose numbers speak for themselves. The ruling PP won 11,315 votes (31%); UNE-GANA 9,338 (26%); Líder 4,670 (13%); Creo 4,338 (12%); Viva 1,782 (5%); Victoria 1,651 (5%); Pan 921 (3%) and Casa 595 (2%). Eight parties fighting for one town! They divide it rather than one party getting all largely because of the 48 Cantons’ attitude that peoples’ individual election decision reigns supreme while in other areas, such as those indicated above, the community authority must be respected. Admittedly, although this distinction is made, the influence of that authority does slop over into other fields.

The result of the last election, in favor of PP Mayor Miguel B. Cavaloc, directly tied the municipality to PP Congressional Representative Iván Arévalo, one of the two brothers who have maintained control of the municipality for years through an indigenous official. While his brother is no longer the mayor, he might as well be because Chavaloc was his adviser and uses the Arévalo brothers’ power in government to promise as many projects as he can that work to reduce the authority of the communal mayors. That’s why, a day after the massacre, when Totonicapán was seething with grief and anger, many feared that some would burn down the municipal offices.

To understand this anger and frustration, listen to what a K’iche’ widow was shouting to her dead husband in the hospital: “¿Jas kinbij in che la ak’ojol chi are le gobierno xekamisanik, are le gobierno le uj mismo xeqatuyub’a’?” (What am I going to tell your son? That the government killed them, the government we ourselves put into power?). Although on the second runoff round Otto Pérez Molina didn’t win in the municipality of Totonicapán, he did get 45% and, from what the dead man’s widow said, her husband had helped vote him into power.

Another element is the ruling party’s strong presence in Totonicapán. It continuously infiltrates and tries to buy the community authorities in order to control them or even, I’ve heard it said, violently overthrow them. The people in this municipality are very aware of these specific limitations of the 48 Cantons and are trying to overcome them.

Factors of Guatemala’s
growing social conflict

Since the massacre, there’s growing opinion that intense social conflict is increasing in the country. Those on the right think outdated and frustrated leaders are the connecting thread for the conflicts. But some factors behind this situation—some call it anarchy and a governability crisis while others call it a groundswell of grassroots resistance—can’t be hidden .

Impoverishment: The first factor is an undercurrent of numerous, marginalized, impoverished people who don’t enjoy the rule of law because they’ve been deprived of the right to health, land, employment, housing and services (drinking water, electricity...). Their malnutrition cries out to heaven.

Transnational capital: The second is the penetration of transnational capital, which has been voraciously spreading out over the land. Some sociologists claim that when the sources and processes of new capital accumulation—what Marx called primitive capital accumulation—are territorial, they are always violent. This was true of the California gold rush, oil extraction in the USSR and now in Russia, coal mines in England and Wales, diamond mines in South Africa and Namibia, and the list goes on. These are venture capitalists, a breed prepared to do anything, although they are presented to their national counterparts as a means for development.

A new brand of leaders: The third factor is that some sectors among the poor have been progressing: they are more educated and more aware. They know, for example, how to read complicated electricity bills... You can’t sell them chalk for cheese. These sectors, which can be found throughout the country, are leading the protests, without necessarily forming a national grassroots organization or having experienced armed conflict. Among them are many daring and enthusiastic young people who, as we can see in various photographs, were laughing as they threw stones at the army’s riot forces. These sectors are using their community’s territorial organizations spontaneously at the village or, as in Totonicapán, municipal level. This is why, although the trouble spots are extremely localized, they keep in touch through this groundswell of poverty; it fosters their awareness of being sidelined from the rule of law so legality has very little meaning for them.

The media: The fourth factor is the common thread, or rather network, that connects all these foci: the media. And not just the traditional media, such as the press and TV, but more especially the cell phone, where native language flows and facts are confirmed. We don’t know how, but news of the Totonicapán massacre, the attempted cover-up by the President and his ministers and the soldiers’ trial reached Petén quickly, and emboldened the village of La Libertad to hold the 21 soldiers (imagine holding 21 soldiers for eight hours!). It also reached San Marcos, which also took hostages, to exchange for the release of one of its own. …And so it will go on, probably.

Added to this effect is the impetus the media gives to consumerism, generating an explosion of very mixed expectations that also foment delinquent crime, the dream behind the migration North and even sexual desire mixed with violence in the form of rape and the murder of teenage men and women after they are raped. Globalization opens the floodgates not only to voracious venture investment but also to the images of an unattainable but desparately desired society of affluence.

A weak government and State:

The fifth factor that causes conflicts is governmental weakness. Although the government increasingly consumes a larger budget, it lacks institutional channels to meet people’s growing demands. In part it’s fiscally constrained by a racist society that doesn’t want to reach into its pockets to pay taxes at the same time that it does want a strong State to repress “dangerous” movements; in part it’s bogged down in corruption that desensitizes officials to the poor; in part it covers up the truth to its citizens and in part it’s involved in a costly war against drug trafficking…

But we don’t just have a weak government; we also have a weak State that tends to hide its weakness with violence, as happened on Alaska summit. The government is egged on by conservative, racist social sectors that want to hide their social responsibility by extolling the rule of law and punishing all who transgress it, except themselves, of course. For them, people who protest and take over highways as leverage are a crazed mob, thirsty to lynch soldiers, radical criminals, leaders who haven’t overcome the syndrome of internal armed conflict. They often proclaim the need to resolve matters through dialogue, but to date, they’ve only used it as a delaying and distracting tactic that doesn’t resolve anything because they dialogue with loaded dice and those really responsible for the problems and crises are never present.

Legitimacy of resistance: A sixth factor is the growing legitimacy of resistance, over and above what the laws say, since in Guatemala the rule of law isn’t for everyone. There is increasing admiration, even in academic circles, for what is called human “agency” (a term referring to the capacity of individuals to make choices, determine their beliefs and act in the world rather than allowing themselves to be unthinkingly governed by nature or environmental factors, including culture), rejection of the conceptualization of the oppressed and repressed as passive victims, distrust even of the word “martyr” and glorification of the struggle of civilians over that of guerrillas... This perspective moves the focus of attention from law to justice and lifts the cause of peoples’ resistance, if not using the biblical simile of David against Goliath, then that of the Popol Vuh of Jun Junajpú felling the arrogant Spaniard with a blowpipe in the jaw.

The people of Totonicapán see those massacred as heroes who gave up their lives for the good of the town. Even if they died with a rock in their hands and a bullet in their chests, no one can take this feeling away. They don’t see that they were breaking the law by obstructing the passage of vehicles, but that they were defending themselves from the Army. And while some were killed, they won the battle because they made them retreat. At the same time I don’t believe this idea suppresses their compassion for the female soldier who was wounded in the mouth.

What’s behind this is the feeling that, as one columnist put it: “we have no right to the law.” They don’t deny the value of law, but feel that justice is above it. While this idea shows what’s behind the facts, it’s admittedly a dangerous one because anyone can proclaim themself the faithful interpreter of justice and trample the rights of others in fighting for their own cause—a prerogative the powerful normally reserve for themselves.

Organized crime and drug trafficking: A final factor is the world of organized crime and drug trafficking which, trying to be like a State, truly undermines and weakens the State, whether by confronting it, burrowing inside of it or the two things together. One of the dangers is that, whether voluntarily or intentionally, the security forces confuse legitimate resistance with these manifestations of organized violence.

Ricardo Falla, sj, is an anthropologist and an envío collaborator.

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