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Keeping the Peace


As this week’s news brief mentioned, tension has been increasing among indigenous communities in Totonicapán, Guatemala since the death of several protesters last fall. The International Crisis Group gave a summary of its recent report on the tension and violence this week and issues a reminder that groups from civil society, as well the government, must come together to address the problem:

“The killing of protestors last October was a tragedy foretold by those who have long warned against Guatemala’s use of the armed forces to maintain domestic peace.

Totonicapán: Tension in Guatemala’s Indigenous Hinterland, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines how using the army for law enforcement and to maintain public order in a country with extensive economic inequalities is especially perilous. The danger became tragically clear on 4 October 2012, when soldiers apparently opened fire on a march protesting high electricity prices and demanding affordable education and recognition and promotion of indigenous rights in the highland Maya town of Totonicapán, killing six and injuring more than 30.

“Tensions are high in many indigenous areas over issues such as mining and access to land, education and electricity”, says Mary Speck, Crisis Group’s Senior Guatemala Analyst. “This makes it all the more urgent for Guatemala to build civilian security forces trained to manage demonstrations without resorting to violence”.

Protests, especially among the desperately poor indigenous population, are on the rise, as a multitude of issues fuel conflict in many rural areas. The recent past makes such unrest particularly dangerous. Between 1960 and 1996, the country suffered one of the most brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin American history, during which an estimated 200,000 people died, most of them from Maya communities in the western highlands.

Although initially sceptical that soldiers had used lethal force, President Otto Pérez Molina did the right thing by allowing prosecutors to conduct an investigation that has so far resulted in charges against an army colonel and eight soldiers. He has also promised to refrain from sending armed soldiers to demonstrations, though his government continues to use the military to supplement the deficiencies of civilian police who are overwhelmed even by ordinary street crime much less the drug cartels that now penetrate Guatemala.

The government needs to give indigenous populations a voice and a stake in the formulation and implementation of policies that affect their culture and livelihoods. It also needs to make police reform a top priority, establishing a timeline and benchmarks for transferring law enforcement duties away from the military, as required under the 1996 peace accords.

The Congress needs to establish an effective legal framework that allows indigenous communities to resolve legitimate concerns about the environmental and social impact of hydroelectric and mining projects. Investors should cooperate with indigenous and environmental activists to implement extractive industry best practices designed to protect local interests. Finally, leaders from across the political spectrum should work to ensure that indigenous peoples – who make up half or nearly half the population – secure the representation they deserve within the country’s political institutions.

“The onus is not on the national government alone. Local and communal authorities, as well as organisations that represent indigenous and rural interests, need to negotiate in good faith to reach democratic compromises on how to manage natural resources”, says Javier Ciurlizza, Crisis Group’s Latin America and Caribbean Program Director”. “Investors should perform environmental and human rights due diligence, focusing on the special needs and challenges faced by indigenous communities”.”

For more information, check out the full Executive Summary from ICG online.

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