Guatemala: State of Siege Due to Hydroelectric Plant Conflict

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

The Guatemalan government has declared a state of siege in Santa Cruz Barillas, following demonstrations and clashes sparked by the death of a community leader who opposed the construction of a hydroelectric plant. Citizens from this community have been using blogs and social networks to report on the current conflict.

Santa Cruz Barillas is located in Huehuetenango, one of the most culturally diverse areas in Guatemala, where members of at least four different indigenous groups live, and where Spanish speakers are the exception rather than the norm. It is also the place where the cruelest, most brutal acts of genocide were perpetrated by members of the Army back in the 1980s.

The process of peace and reconciliation never arrived there; in some of the massacres there were no survivors left behind. It is also one of the most impoverished areas with a rate of 79.7% child malnourishment [es].

The community vs. the hydroelectric plant

The unrest first started with a disagreement between Spanish energy corporation Hidralia Energia [es] (@HidraliaEnergia) [es] and the inhabitants of Santa Cruz Barillas. According to the company's public relations website, the project complies [es] with environmental regulations. However, the company did not ask for the community's approval to build the hydroelectric plant.

The entire community [es], through their legitimate representatives in each and every Community Development Council (COCODE), have opposed the hydroelectric plant, asserting that it will seriously harm the Cambalan river environment, as reported by a Santa Cruz Barillas news portal [es]. In October 2011, community leaders publicly condemned [es] and rejected the project, and during the following months the confrontation increased.

Back in 2007, more than 46,000 members of the community had voted against mining and hydroelectric companies through a mechanism of public consultation.

Picture by under a Creative Commons License

Picture by under a Creative Commons License

In late April 2012, allegations of land mines placed around the hydroelectric company to protect it from any disruptive actions triggered a series of protests where citizens expressed their concern and demanded that the company be expelled from the community. Protesters denounced the mined field at the offices of the police, and later demanded protection and action from the army.

Citizen media connections

In spite of limited connectivity, unstable electricity and geographical isolation – or maybe because of the latter – Santa Cruz Barillas has high quality, interactive citizen media, which is key for understanding the community's dynamics and problems, especially in moments of tension.

During the last weekend of April 2012, villagers in Santa Cruz Barillas were kicking off their local annual festivities, starting with a beauty pageant to elect the 2012/13 Mayan Q'anjob'al beauty queen, as Pancholon reported on his blog [es]. Several of these activities were even livestreamed [es], offering an opportunity for the diaspora, especially in Los Angeles, California, to watch the festivities and also become aware of local issues, such as the hydroelectric one.

Blogs represent a bridge between these two communities living so far apart and they share information through a social network called Barillenses [es], and also use Facebook and Twitter (@barillas) [es].

Among the disagreements between the community and the company was the obstruction of pedestrian movement in a public area due to the works of the company. Pancholon reported the incident in his blog [es] and provided a copy of the complaint from the community to the police.

Pancholon also shared his concern [es] that there is pressure on local media to not report on the incident:

Se ha solicitado a los medios de comunicacion en Barillas  a no hacer eco de esta noticia por temor a represalias y no pasar anuncios publicitarios a favor de la empresa Hidro Santa Cruz. La poblacion de Santa Cruz Barillas ha puesto una denuncia ante el Juzgado de paz porque se ha encontrado artefactos explosivos activados y la denotacion de bombas tipo Claimor en la entrada donde se esta construyendo la Hidroelectrica. Los vecinos se dedican al trabajo de cultivar la tierra y temen que encuentren en su camino mas explosivos, tambien han  sido obgetos de amenazas, intimidaciones via telefonica por parte de trabajadores de HIDRO-SANTA CRUZ

Media in Barillas have been asked not to spread the news about the conflict, as people are scared of reprisals, and not to publish any advertisement of the company Hidro Santa Cruz. The people of Barillas filed a complaint before the minor court because they found active land mines and Claymore-style bombs in the entrance where the company is building the hydroelectric plant. The community is dedicated to cultivating the land and are afraid of finding more explosives on their way to work. They have also been subject to threats and intimidatory phone calls from workers of Hidro Santa Cruz.

As reported earlier, one of the community leaders – Andrés Francisco Miguel – was killed and two others were seriously injured in their face and arms in the aftermath of these events. The community blamed the company. Since the village was celebrating its annual festivities, some of the people present were drunk and the unrest lead to the destruction of public facilities and private property. It is uncertain whether the community leaders were involved or not.

NotiBarillas [es], one of the leading local media outlets in Barillas, reports that the government declared a state of siege for 30 days and restricted, but did not cancel, the festivities in the village. They also provide a comprehensive timeline [es] of the conflict and events leading to the recent developments: more than 12 people have been arrested, including a 74-year-old woman accused of keeping unlicensed guns in her residence.

Through its blog, the peoples’ Council demanded [es] the release of the arrested community leaders and condemned the President's declarations claiming that the protests were linked to drug dealers and organized crime. Diverse social organizations, like legal advocacy group SERJUS [es] and other organizations from the neighboring Ixcan locality, demanded [es] an exhaustive investigation to discover who was behind the killing of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel.

Declaring a state of siege has been the reiterated practice of the last three governments when situations get out of the authorities’ control. Meanwhile, citizen participation mechanisms where all stakeholders can convene and agree on the best solution have been largely ignored.

An open letter to the President was published today in a collective Latin American Social Scientists blog [es], signed by dozens of well know academics and institutions, demanding that the President of Guatemala defend the people over enterprises and private companies.

According to the government of Guatemala's Twitter account (@GuatemalaGob) [es] the President visited Santa Cruz Barillas on May 7. His message favors the hydroelectric plant and blames the conflict on organized crime and ideological disagreement. He also affirmed he will increased the number of soldiers in the village.

In his communique [es] he did not mention the killed local man, but showed the injuries of one of the soldiers.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

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