Polochic: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

 "We went looking for solutions, and found only pain."

- A survivor of the Panzos massacre -

 

 

Polochic: Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

 

The Maya Q’eqchi’ communities of Guatemala's Polochic Valley have suffered a long history of threats, displacement, brutal violence, and crushing poverty. After a series of violent evictions in March 2011, over 700 families are just trying to stay alive.

 

In 1954 a CIA-sponsored coup cut short promising land reform efforts in Guatemala because they affected the economic interests of US companies operating in the country. During the military governments that ruled Guatemala  throughout the three decades following the coup, powerful families (both local and foreign) gained “legal” title to the land in the Polochic Valley through a combination of fraud, confiscation, intimidation, and violence.

 

The Maya Q’eqchi’ population was displaced, and often forced to work for slave wages on the large plantations. Tensions between the large landowners, many of German descent, and the local indigenous population increased as the communities struggled to win legal recognition of their historic claims to the land.

 

On May 27, 1978 campesinos (subsistence farmers) of San Vincente, Panzós, went to plant corn by the banks of the Polochic River. They were met by the sons of a plantation owner who, accompanied by army troops, threatened them and told them to stop demanding land reform. Two days later, hundreds of men, women and children from different communities gathered in the central plaza of Panzos to speak with the Mayor, Walter Overdick García, seeking a solution to the land problem and an end to the constant threats and intimidation.

But instead of dialogue, the community members were met with bullets. Soldiers, laying in wait on the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the plaza, opened fire on the crowd. Men, women and children were savagely massacred, their bodies thrown into the town dump truck, carted like trash to the town's cemetery, and tossed into a common pit. Others died from their wounds while fleeing the massacre. It is estimated that over 100 people were killed, and many more were injured. 

 

Former mayor Walter Overdick Garcia recently made a shocking declaration while testifying during a court hearing in June of this year. Naming names, he publically confirmed that four wealthy landowners in the region had coordinated beforehand with high-ranking military officials to violently repress the campesino gathering.

 

The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH), in their truth commission report entitled “Memory of Silence”, characterizes the Panzos case as a clear example of the State’s inability to protect the historic land rights of the Q’eqchi’ communities. The case reveals how large landowners utilize the State to resolve land disputes in their favor, even to the point of using extreme violence against poor campesinos. It also clearly demonstrates the willingness of the elite to involve the army in agrarian conflicts. Sadly, little has changed in the 33 years since the massacre of Panzos.

 

In 2006, Carlos Widmann, brother-in-law of then President Oscar Berger, secured loans from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) for $31 million to move his sugar cane refinery, Ingenio Guadalupe, from the Guatemala’s southern coast to the Polochic Valley. The company, renamed Chabil Utzaj, eventually floundered and the lands were abandoned. Displaced Q’eqchi’ communities returned to the idle lands and began to plant subsistence crops for their survival. In 2010 newspapers reported that the lands and equipment belonging to Chabil Utzaj were to be auctioned off by a Guatemalan bank. 

 

In March 2011, however, it was announced that Grupo Pellas of Nicaragua had come to the financial “rescue” of Chabil Utzaj, investing over $20 million in the business, under the name "Guatemala Sugar State Corporation." The Pellas family, producers of Flor de Caña rum, is the most powerful economic family in Nicaragua. They oversee a vast empire that includes a bank, a hospital, car dealerships, insurance companies, liquor distribution companies, communication companies and many other businesses throughout the region. They are the largest exporters of sugarcane-produced ethanol in all of Central America, and have also expanded into the cultivation of African Palm for the production of palm oil and biodiesel.

 

With Chabil Utzaj back in business, the land had to be cleared — and that meant getting rid of the Maya Q’eqchi’ farmers who had planted their crops in the idle fields.

 

On March 14, while certain Guatemalan government officials met with a delegation from the Polochic communities to find a negotiated solution to the urgent need for land, other government officials were preparing the logistics to forcibly remove those very same communities. It would be the largest land eviction in Guatemala’s recent history.

 

The following day, in the early morning hours, hundreds of soldiers, national police, and private security guards employed by Chabil Utzaj gathered in the Polochic Valley. Under the direction of Carlos Widmann, they began to violently evict men, women and children from their homes. One farmer, Antonio Beb Ac, received a fatal wound to his head. Others were injured or became sick from tear gas inhalation.

 

Families desperately pleaded with the government and paramilitary forces to spare the crops that they had planted, but to no avail. In a brutality reminiscent of the scorched earth tactics used by the army during the internal conflict, indigenous families’ homes were burned and their crops destroyed, leaving thousands without food or shelter.

 

Two days later, the government of President Alvaro Colom published a confrontational communiqué entitled: "It is the Duty of the Government of the Republic to Preserve Governability and Uphold the Rule of Law." The document asserted that the government has the "legal and moral obligation to stop this growing wave of illegal actions." Unfortunately, the "illegal actions" being referred to weren't the violent evictions or the assassinations of campesinos, but rather the peaceful

 protest of those human rights violations by social movement organizations. The government threatened to "immediately carry out all pending land evictions" and "freeze all dialogue" with campesino organizations. 

 

The attacks didn’t end with the evictions. On March 21, members of the Canlún community were cultivating land which they own through their cooperative. They saw three tractors excavating in a nearby field, accompanied by 18 private guards and the head of security for the Chabil Utzaj sugar company. When the farmers asked what was going on, they were told that the tractors were digging their graves. Immediately, the head of security ordered the guards to open fire. Oscar Reyes, a 34 year-old farmer, was shot dead. Three others received bullet wounds.

 

Then, on May 13, three private helicopters flew over the community of Aguacaliente, dropping grenades on the cornfields that had survived destruction during the evictions and intimidating the families that were trying to harvest the corn.

 

On June 4th María Margarita Che Chub, a 37 year-old community leader from Parana, was shot and killed by heavily-armed men who arrived by motorcycle at her home. She was murdered in the presence of her two young children.

 

At midnight on August 10, 22 families were attacked by 30 paramilitary forces. The armed men, their faces covered, began firing their weapons and demanding that the community members leave the land belonging to Chabil Utzaj. The families’ fragile homes were destroyed and their belongings, including their clothes and harvested corn, were set on fire. Martín Pec May was shot in the abdomen and Carlos Ical was shot in the leg. An 8-year old girl was injured when a bullet grazed her leg.

 

A “New” Chabil Utzaj

 

In June, a PR piece posing as a news article entitled “Grupo Pellas buys Sugar Refinery and Will Create 2,000 Jobs” was published in the Siglo XXI newspaper. It stated that the Pellas Group had assumed “total control” of the business, and that they were creating a “new Chabil Utzaj”. In addition to job creation, Miguel Maldonado, the new general manager of Chabil Utzaj, promised to “provide aid, maybe help the schools and build a little hospital or support the existing health clinics. We don’t want to arrive empty-handed, we want to help the people, but for that to happen there has to be productivity.”

 

The patronizing offer to “help the people,” will provide little in the way of long-term change for communities in the Polochic Valley. Half of the proposed new jobs are temporary “high season” positions. By proposing to replace family farming with large-scale sugar production the “new” Chabil Utzaj is creating a situation of financial and food dependency, a break with existing community structures, an usurpation of the role of the State in providing health and education services, and a complete disregard for the fundamental cultural importance of corn within the indigenous culture. The “new” Chabil Utzaj reflects a very old feudal mentality.

 

The work of GHRC

 

Immediately following the evictions, GHRC joined with a coalition of Guatemalan and international organizations in petitioning the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States to approve precautionary measures for the communities. Precautionary measures request that a State take concrete steps to “prevent irreparable harm” to persons, organization, or communities who are at risk.

  

On June 20, the IACHR granted precautionary measures for the 14 communities forcibly evicted in the Polochic. It states, in part:

 

“Between 700 and 800 families from the communities are living in precarious conditions, without access to food and water, and that State agencies have failed to provide them with shelter or nutrition solutions. […] The Inter-American Commission requested that the State of Guatemala adopt any necessary measures to guarantee the life and physical integrity of the members of the 14 Q'eqchi indigenous communities; adopt any necessary measures to provide humanitarian assistance, including food and shelter, to the members of the 14 displaced communities; and come to an agreement with the beneficiaries and their representatives on the measures to be adopted.”

 

GHRC has been working tirelessly with the other human rights, campesino and indigenous organizations to ensure their implementation by the Guatemalan government. We’ve met constantly with the communities in an effort to define their most pressing needs in the areas of security, food, health, and shelter. We’ve also maintained pressure on the government to come to a consensus with the beneficiaries about how to best implement the measures.

 

The government’s response, up until now, has been disappointing, to say the least. It wasn’t until a September 2 meeting between COPREDEH (the Presidential Human Rights Commission) and community representatives that the government finally took concrete steps towards complying with the precautionary measures.

 

One important step forward was the commitment to carry out a health and food census in the communities to determine how the government can best provide immediate health care and urgent food aid to the families. As for security, there has been a rotation of the police officers assigned to the area and an investigation of Chabil Utzaj’s private security company is underway.

 

In the end, though, we return to the beginning: the issue of land. The government has stated repeatedly that topics of access to land and land ownership are not up for discussion. However the farmers say that it is ludicrous to talk about their food and housing needs without mentioning the need for land. “How am I going to feed my family if I can’t work the land? I’m not a beggar and I don’t want handouts. I’m a farmer and I want to plant,” exclaimed one campesino during a meeting. Yet another wondered: “The government talks about housing, but where are they going to build my house? In the air?”

 

As long as the majority of arable farmland continues to remain in the hands of a few wealthy families and transnational corporations, as long as biodiesel crops such as African palm and sugarcane continue to replace the traditional crops of corn and beans, as long as the justice system continues to serve the interests of private property instead of protecting human rights, as long as the Congress refuses to pass any law relating to rural development, and as long as the government favors forced evictions instead of meaningful and productive dialogue, we can expect more of the same.

 

Polochic is an emblematic case of what other agrarian communities throughout Guatemala are facing. In fact, since Polochic, there have been other violent land evictions in Retalhuleu and the Petén, with tragic consequences.

 

The lame duck Colom administration is in the process of “closing up shop.” The work of government ministries and institutions is slowly grinding to a halt. Much of the actual efforts during the remaining four months will be geared towards preparing the transition to the incoming government that takes office on January 14, 2012.

 

Meanwhile, the families of the Polochic and other displaced campesino communities struggle day-to-day to find a way to put food on their table.

 

 

 

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