This article was originally published by Elías Oxom in Prensa Comunitaria, then edited and republished by Global Voices under a media partnership.
Adela Choc Cuz, a member of the Q’eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council of the El Estor municipality in eastern Guatemala, and her daughter Sandra Tec Choc, were released in the morning of May 17, after a group of people held them hostage, accusing them of witchcraft and of inflicting a critical health condition on a woman from the community.
According to Choc Cuz, they were detained in the house for more than 18 hours, without being allowed to consume food or water, in addition to being beaten by members of the family. They took away her clothes, furniture, and kitchen utensils; she had a mill to make nixtamal (tortilla dough from corn flour), a refrigerator, a sewing machine and three bicycles.
Choc Cuz is considered a spiritual guide in her community and she is also part of the anti-mining resistance in El Estor. She was accused of witchcraft by Mario Caal Pec, brother of Selvin Pec, who is the owner of the Evangelical radio station La Voz de Chichipate (The Voice of Chichipate). Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei maintains a close relationship with the country's conservative Evangelical churches, especially on issues that polarize Guatemala, such as laws on women's reproductive health.
In Guatemala, the vast majority of people identify themselves as Christians: according to a 2015 census, 45 percent of Guatemalans say they are Catholic and 42 percent say they are Evangelical. Protestant religions are taking root more and more in Guatemala.
Many Indigenous people practice Catholicism or Evangelism, sometimes merging Christianity with Mayan beliefs in syncretism. According to reports and censuses, the indigenous people — which include 24 ethnic groups — make up between 45 percent and 60 percent of the population in Guatemala. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) states that “the inequality between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population in terms of employment, income, health, and education is well-known. Statistics demonstrate persistent practices of racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.”
Choc Cuz stated: “They accused me of being a witch, but I'm a spiritual guide. I demand justice from the authorities. Mr. Simón Tun Sacul attacked me, threatened to behead me, indicating that he was a Kaibil [an elite unit of the army], and threw me to the ground. I committed no crime. I have seven children. They are all good people. The attackers doused me with gasoline all over my body. I blame COCODE [the community council], which endorsed all this.”
Humberto Cuc, a member of the Q'eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council, condemned these events and said that Choc Cuz is a spiritual guide and part of the Ancestral Council: “We have performed Mayan ceremonies with her, what happened to her is painful. Many times people are wrong. They think that by engaging in our cultural practices we are doing witchcraft. But we respect Evangelical religions. If they see us using candles when planting, they accuse us of witchcraft.”
He also mentioned that for a long time the ancestral councils had been the guardians of the hills and the rivers, although they are no longer seen that way by the society. “They hate her for being part of the anti-mining resistance, the hatred towards her began when she started revealing and denouncing everything about the mining activities in October,” said Humberto Cuc.
The municipality of El Estor is experiencing tensions due to the resistance of the residents to a nickel mining company of the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN), a subsidiary of the Swiss group Solway Investment. According to the residents, who are mostly Mayan Q'eqchi’, the Fénix mine is contaminating Lake Izabal and reducing the fish population. At the end of 2021, after years of struggle that culminated with protests, the inhabitants lived under a state of siege by the government of Guatemala and were watched by armed soldiers.
The spiritual guide was released at three in the morning as people left the scene, except the 15 members of COCODE who had held her in the house.
After Choc Cuz and her daughter were released with the support of representatives of the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office and the National Civil Police, Choc Cuz told Prensa Comunitaria: “I have been harassed by the COCODE [Community Council of Development] led by José Ich. They came to set my house on fire with gasoline and arrest me. I have stayed on the street. They burned all the things I had. They burned the deed of my land and five thousand quetzales in cash.”
When she was released, she had bruises on her forehead. Those who attacked her prohibited her from returning to the community and said that they would hold an assembly on May 18 to propose that she be expelled from the place. The spiritual guide filed a complaint with the Public Ministry.
Lawyer Juan Castro, from the Law Firm for Indigenous Peoples, commented that in most cases the State leaves serious violations like these unpunished. He also mentioned that the crime of witchcraft does not exist.
German Choc, from the Collective of Spiritual Guides “Oxlaju Q'anil,” explained that the role of a spiritual guide in society is to help people, promote Mayan cultural practices, help solve problems, and they are also contadores del tiempo [time keepers].
German Choc stated: “I demand that the State takes action to eliminate these cases. I also demand that the leaders of the churches and sects stop criminalizing spiritual guides and that they promote peaceful coexistence, that they let Indigenous people carry out their cultural and spiritual practices as established by the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala in its article 66, where the State recognizes, respects and promotes the Indigenous ways of life, customs, traditions, forms of social organization, the use of the attire, languages, and dialect of the different peoples of Guatemala.”