Guatemalan human rights organizations have warned that the state of siege decreed by President Alejandro Giammattei in the municipality of El Estor on Sunday October 24 has put the rights of the inhabitants of the region at risk. Giammattei declared the state of siege after nearly three weeks of peaceful demonstrations by the Mayan Q’eqchi’ community against a mining project that they allege was approved illegally.
Following the establishment of the state of siege, over 800 agents of the National Civil Police, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force were deployed to the zone and the community was forced to end their peaceful mobilization to avoid violent repression and arrest. The state of siege declared by the president prohibits any kind of public protest and puts control of the municipality in the hands of the army, who can detain people with no arrest warrant. Even before the state of siege was imposed, the Indigenous protest had been met with heavy repression from security forces, but the measure gave increased powers to the forces.
#Urgente @Ejercito_GT utiliza helicopteros para intimidar a pueblo Q’eqchi en #ElEstor. Hay tropa militar en un operativo ilegal que podría reprimir a quienes permanecen en el plantón antiminero. Ejército pretende ingresar camiones de CGN, Pronico y Mayaniquel. 📌
🎥 Cortesía pic.twitter.com/QWDsL6YacR
— PrensaComunitaria (@PrensaComunitar) October 23, 2021
Human rights organizations have condemned that beginning on October 25 security forces have raided the homes of dozens of members of the Maya Q’eqchi’ Ancestral Council that participated in the protests as well as the homes of journalists like Carlos Ernesto Choc Chub that have been covering the protests and the subsequent crackdown. Several people have also been taken into custody.
They have also highlighted that the state of siege declared in El Estor is in violation of the country’s constitution. Civil society and Indigenous organizations presented a formal complaint in this regard to the Constitutional Court on October 27. Wendy López, a lawyer with the Indigenous People’s Firm, declared that the state of siege “goes against the fundamental norms and principles of the constitution.” They also highlighted that the application of the state of siege is usually reserved for a state of war, hardly applicable to the situation of a peaceful protest.
Carlos Barrientos of the Committee for Peasant Unity of Guatemala told Brasil de Fato, “We consider it unconstitutional because it is a disproportionate action. The state of siege is a state of exception prior to the entry into a state of war, according to the Constitution. What has happened in the region are demonstrations against government and business decisions.” He that the regulations on states of exception are a legacy of the 1965 Constitution, which is no longer in force and was approved during the Guatemalan military dictatorship.
The repressive response of the government to the community protest has also led human rights organizations to ask the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to issue precautionary measures for members of the community.
For days before the state of siege was declared, the Indigenous movements had been denouncing the presence of infiltrators in the protests who generated disturbances to justify the subsequent state control. Videos posted on social networks show the violence of Guatemalan police forces against the Indigenous community.
The platform Social Movements of ALBA released a statement in solidarity with the struggle of the Maya Q’eqchi’ people and called on the Guatemalan government to end the repression of the Indigenous community and organizations in El Estor and the declaration of the state of siege, and for the government to respect the consultation of Indigenous communities as stipulated by Convention 169 of the ILO which Guatemala ratified.
Indigenous communities protest illegal extraction
On October 4, the Maya Q’eqchi’ Ancestral Council began a peaceful protest to demand that the Fénix mining project of Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN) be suspended as the company did not carry out a proper consultation to the Indigenous communities about the project. CGN is a subsidiary of Swiss-based Solway Investment Group, and was granted a license to operate by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
In 2019, Indigenous authorities and communities in El Estor had won an important ruling in the Constitutional Court that stated that until a consultation of the Indigenous people was carried out, the Fénix project license would be suspended. Guatemala is a signatory of the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on Indigenous rights which, among other things, obliges them to consult Indigenous communities in the area of any potential extractive project.
The government and the mining company did not abide by the ruling and continued operating until the ruling was signed by judges a year later in June 2020. The company then carried out a “consultation” but excluded the key actors including the fishing communities and the local Indigenous authorities.
The communities in El Estor claim that the mining companies have continued to illegally extract nicken in their territories, violating the court ruling, and contaminating the only source of freshwater in the region.
In the protest action begun by the Indigenous communities on October 4, they blocked the main access roads to the municipality and prevented the transit of mining trucks, effectively paralyzing operations at the Fénix mine. Following the imposition of the state of siege by the government, communities reported that the mining company’s trucks were able to mobilize freely and were protected by the Security Forces.
In July 2021, the head of the Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity in Guatemala was removed from his position. Subsequently, in political asylum, Juan Francisco Sandoval stated that he had gathered evidence showing that President Alejandro Giammattei had received bribes in January from one of the companies that were to execute the Fénix project and that for this reason he was being persecuted by the State.
With reports from Prensa Comunitaria and Brasil de Fato