Guatemala’s Cuatro Caminos is an important intersection in the Central American nation’s western “Altiplano,” its mountainous highlands. Depending on which of the directions you take from Cuatro Caminos – west to Quetzaltengo, north to Heuhuetenango, or east to Totonicapán – you’ll find three major centres of the country’s Indigenous Mayan population. The fourth will take you southeast down the mountains’ nerve-wracking hairpin turns toward the national capital, Guatemala City.
As a major stop on the PanAmerican Highway, its strategic and economic importance is evident. But the geography still doesn’t justify last week’s killing of seven Mayans, with dozens more wounded, in an assault by the Guatemalan military on a peaceful protest blockade.
The violent incident is a disturbing escalation against increasingly frequent yet peaceful social protest in the divided nation. It recalls the bloodbath of the 1980s, when Guatemala’s governing military junta waged wholesale genocide in many regions dominated by the country’s Mayan majority. This area of the Altiplano was the scene of numerous massacres and the elimination of dozens of Mayan villages in a systematic effort that we would now recognize as an ethnic-cleansing campaign.
In last week’s bloodbath, the non-violent demonstrators from nearby Totonicapán were protesting rising electricity prices and asking for a dialogue with the national government of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former military intelligence chief, over proposed education and constitutional reforms.
The violent response is a vivid illustration of how little this country has changed since the peace accords that ended a four-decade civil war in the 1990s. Despite the high hopes then, there is a lot of unfinished business. The country’s white and mestizo elite still controls a grossly unequal share of its wealth, leaving the only country in the Americas with an Indigenous majority with one of the hemisphere’s worst levels of economic disparity.
The stakes were the same when I passed through the Cuatro Caminos with a small human-rights delegation in the spring of 1990. In a nearby town that hosted a military base, we visited a secret safe house that hid targets of the era’s ubiquitous death squads before they could escape to one of the many refugee camps in southern Mexico.
I vividly recall the fear and desperation, mixed with hope and determination, among the people I met and interviewed there. Two decades later, the war may be a fading memory, but the issues that led to the armed conflict are not. Guatemala remains a deeply racist nation in which the Mayan majority remains dispossessed and at the mercy of armed thugs, uniformed or not.
Totonicapán’s population, which is about 90% Mayan, endures harsh poverty levels in which more than 80% are malnourished. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the region’s communities are also recognized as some of the best organized and least violent in the country, with a deep concern for environmental issues.
According to the international NGO Cultural Survival, “Totonicapán is one of the few territories where Indigenous authorities exercise power, divided in 48 cantons, led by community mayors and a president who serves as the mediator in case of conflicts and as the spokesperson when it is necessary to dialogue beyond the community.” Community members who rely on ancestral knowledge of their lands and resources have preserved surrounding forests for generations. It’s this type of local organization most feared by the multinational corporations who otherwise enjoy free rein in the country thanks to the bought-and-paid-for political and military elite.
Indeed, other incidents in recent months point to an escalation of repression against popular pressure for local influence over Guatemala’s rich resources.
In July, a feminist leader in this culturally macho nation was attacked by armed men who tried to lynch her after a protest against abusive mining practices near the community of Quiché.
According to a report by Global Village (an organization from which I have gathered much of the information in this column), she was leading a group of local residents who were demonstrating their refusal to sell community lands to transnational mining corporations.
And last May, Guatemala declared a state of siege in Santa Cruz Barillas, after protests against the construction of a hydroelectric project. This followed the still unsolved killing of community leader and social activist Andrés Francisco Miguel. Once again, this region was the scene of military atrocities during the civil war. Not coincidentally, its people are also highly organized and politicized despite crushing poverty.
None of these stories received much, if any, attention in our mainstream media. The conflicts in Central America were front-page news back in the 1980s, but the age-old struggle to democratize the benefits of natural resources, especially for the Indigenous communities who have always occupied these lands, has not changed. From Eeyou Istchee to Cuatro Caminos, the struggle is one and the same.