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On February 8, Felix Cuc Xo, a community activist from the settlement of Xya’al K’obe’ in northern Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, was beaten in front of his family and taken away by soldiers and police. He was detained in a private residence that was surrounded by police, and did not resurface. A statement issued by the community noted that local police and jails claimed to know nothing of Cuc Xo’s arrest, but news eventually reached the community that he was being held in prison.
Cuc Xo’s shadowy detention took place under the cover of Alta Verapaz’s martial law, a decree issued by Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom as an anti-narcotics measure on December 19, 2010, and extended for an additional 30 days on January 19. Martial law, declared under a “state of siege” (estado de sitio), is Guatemala’s highest level of alert before a state of war. It has received broad popular support as a response to the Mexican Zeta cartel that uses Alta Verapaz as a staging ground for its Central American operations. Security has been beefed up with 300 soldiers and 500 police in the city of Cobán alone, and officials claim that crime has dropped by 30% since the introduction of martial law.
However, details have begun to emerge that show that these measures have also provided the government with additional impunity in its attempt to quell social movement organizing in the region. Alta Verapaz is a large and predominantly indigenous department in the sparsely populated north–east region of Guatemala. Since efforts to develop the region economically began in the 1960s, the department has seen a boom in activity such as oil drilling, ranching, and agro-fuel production, and it has also become a stronghold of organized campesino and indigenous resistance.
Xya’al K’obe’ and the neighboring community of Se’ Job’ Che’ are two small settlements within Alta Verapaz’s Laguna Lachuá National Park that hold long-standing quarrels with park officials. Having fled their land during the height of the long and bloody Guatemalan armed conflict in the late 1970s, residents of these communities returned to resettle around ten years ago, but found that a national park had been established over their former settlements. Despite being declared illegal invaders by the government, aggression against the communities had been kept at bay and negotiations had been making progress toward resolving the conflicts.
The situations faced by both communities took drastic turns for the worse after the declaration of martial law. On January 10, 40 soldiers, two police officers, and 20 INAB park rangers entered Se’ Job’ Che’ unannounced, firing their weapons into the air. The troops destroyed more than 30 hectares of community corn, beans, and cardamom crops and stole chickens and turkeys. Community member Adelina Yaxcal also claims that a government official accompanying the troops attempted to rape her when he found her hiding among crops. A month later, troops returned and captured Cuc Xo from Xya’al K’obe’.
The Public Order Law outlining states of siege in Guatemala was written in 1965 as a counter-insurgency measure during the early stages of a guerrilla campaign. Under the measure, residents are stripped of the freedom of assembly, soldiers and police are given powers of search and arrest without warrant, and local press coverage of activity by state forces is censored.
Other aspects of the law highlight its political nature, placing the governance of the department in the hands of the Ministry of Defense, banning strikes and protests, and giving the military the power to dissolve any organization within the area under its control. Ramón Cadena, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala, told the Guatemalan press that “this is a counter-insurgency law and it violates international conventions ratified by Guatemala.”
The return of military power alone would cause fear in much of the population of Alta Verapaz, as the department was one of the worst hit by genocidal counter-insurgency campaigns during the 1970s and 80s. A 1978 massacre of more than 100 civilians in the Alta Verapaz town of Panzós marked a turning point in the war as the indiscriminate slaughter that flows from scorched earth tactics gained prominence among the armed forces. Throughout the war, agricultural cooperatives and other rural communities in Alta Verapaz suffered as regular military targets.
In the 15 years since the conflict ended, hundreds of communities in Alta Verapaz have struggled to regain use of, and title to land they fled during the violence, or to reclaim territory lost to large landowners during previous generations. There are currently more than 300 agrarian conflicts in Alta Verapaz, and many of them amount to groups refusing to leave land to which they hold a legitimate claim, as is the case with Se’ Job’ Che’ and Xya’al K’obe’.
Communities engaged in struggles for land already walk a precarious line between negotiation and the willingness of Guatemalan state institutions to clear contested land with military force. Campesinos also face eviction at the hands of large landowners and their private security guards, and violent attacks of this sort also appear to have increased under martial law. Saquimo Setano, a community with a land title that has been contested by a large landowner, was attacked by armed men on January 20. In the neighboring department of Izabal three campesino activists were killed on February 12.
When state forces are involved, normal conditions require authorities to at least present warrants and bring along representatives of the public prosecutor or the human rights ombudsman when removing communities from land conflicts. As the above cases show, however, state forces have begun to abandon even these minimal legal pretexts under martial law.
It is difficult to tell whether Se’ Job’ Che’ and Xya’al K’obe’ are examples of a broader campaign of violent intimidation against organized communities, especially as the Guatemalan press has been restricted in their coverage of the military. The details outlined above were relayed through the National Campesino and Indigenous Coordinator (CONIC), a campesino organization connected to both communities, but with hundreds of groups living similar conflicts across Alta Verapaz it is likely that more military incursions may have gone unnoticed. Monitoring and denunciation is made all the more difficult given the state of siege stipulations against meetings and political organizations.
If the extent of military actions in rural communities is unclear, however, there has been a noticeable lack of success against drug traffickers. Uncovered weapons caches have been displayed with pride, but the few drug-related arrests made under martial law have turned up mostly minor players. During the first month of the measures, just 21 people were captured, and the first arrest of a high-level member of the feared Mexican Zetas wasn’t made until February. All signs point to the continuing power of the narcos when Alta Verapaz returns to civilian control.
Rather than making progress in the war on drugs, martial law in Alta Verapaz has already established its lasting impact as another major step in the country’s long process of remilitarization. Each of Guatemala’s four peacetime presidents has moved to re-assert the role of the armed forces in crime fighting and social control.
Among other significant milestones, the 1996 peace accord measures separating the military from internal policing was discarded in a 1999 referendum; joint military-police crime patrols were initiated in 2001; troops began the regular practice of evicting communities from land conflicts in 2004; and President Colom has recently reopened wartime military bases and begun military operations within national parks. The current state of siege—the first declared since the end of the war in 1996—sets an eerie precedent through direct military control and suspended civil rights.
Since 2008, a number of other Guatemalan departments have been subject to a series of “states of prevention,” emergency measures that are somewhat limited in scope as compared to states of siege, and which operate with a 15-day timeframe, albeit an extendable one. In contrast, the Public Order Law does not provide a time limit for martial law under a state of siege. Tellingly, Presidential Communications Secretary Ronaldo Robles declared early on that the administration will seek to maintain the state of siege for “as long as is necessary in order to regain governability of the department.”
Martial law in Alta Verapaz was almost certainly declared for reasons other than the repression of organized communities. The influence of opposing drug cartels within state institutions, pressure from the United States, and upcoming presidential elections quite likely played a role in taking the Guatemalan war on drugs to a new level. But the temporary measures have also generated an elevated state of impunity, a situation that was supposed to provide cover in the violent arrest of Felix Cuc Xo and the attack on Se’ Job’ Che’. It remains to be discovered just how many more communities and activists have been targeted under martial law, and what political role will be granted to the military in the months and years ahead.
Post-script added by author on February 18: Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom lifted the state of siege in Alta Verapaz on February 18. Colom mentioned in December that he would like to see future periods of martial law in the departments of El Petén, Huehuetenango, Zacapa, and San Marcos, but noted that military troop numbers would have to be increased for that to happen.
Simon Granovsky-Larsen is a PhD candidate in Political Science at York University, Toronto, who researched land struggles with Guatemalan campesino communities and organizations during 2009-2010.
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