By: Ben Gutman
A sign at the entrance to Monte Olivo memorializing land defenders who gave their lives protecting their community and way of life. Photo: Ben Gutman.
First-hand reporting and analysis of the Maya Q’eqchi’ resistance movement against multinational corporate exploitation and in defense of land, nature, and the inalienable right to exist. Demonstrate your solidarity with this movement by donating to FoLA’s “Fund for Political Prisoners in Guatemala”
As we drove north from Cobán towards Chisec in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz, my comrade, a local organizer, began pointing out the different Maya Q’eqchi’ communities and describing their ongoing struggles. Some villages are under siege by the government for refusing to vacate their lands. These besieged communities targeted by mass arrest orders are denied freedom of movement as community members who venture outside their village risk kidnapping and arbitrary detention by police and military. Within other communities, fierce conflict has erupted between neighbors and family members, some of whom have been paid off by oligarchic landowners or “finqueros” to sow chaos and facilitate an eventual mass eviction. Other villages no longer exist. Only the burned out frames of former houses remain following the violent removal of all residents. Our final destination was Monte Olivo, an indigenous Q’eqchi’ village that has continued to defend its land and the local Dolores River from oligarch-funded paramilitary attacks and state-sponsored terrorism for decades.
In the case of Monte Olivo, such attacks are carried out to repress and displace indigenous land defenders on behalf of Guatemalan oligarchs and Western governments financing the Santa Rita hydroelectric project. Since its inception in 2008 by the Santa Rita Hydroelectric Company (owned and operated by the Guatemalan oligarchic López-Roesch family of German origin), the project has been plagued by open conflict with the local population. In 2012, this UN-sponsored endeavor gained nearly 50 percent of its capital investment from the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank in addition to funds provided by the New York-based $100 million private equity fund, the Latin Renewables Infrastructure Fund (LRIF). The LRIF’s investment sources included the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, the German Development Bank (KfW), the Swiss Investment Fund for Emerging Markets, and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. For these international “development” institutions and corporate interests, the profits from exploitative mining, hydroelectric projects, and invasive export crops like African Palm are worth the brutal repression of indigenous Guatemalans whose subjugation to extreme violence has been endemic for some time.
A legacy of foreign intervention and the demolition of Guatemalan democracy
After centuries of genocidal colonial exploitation the 1944 Guatemalan popular uprising sparked a major shift towards inclusivity and egalitarianism. This “October Revolution” toppled a U.S.-backed military junta and brought an end to decades of repressive dictatorship led by General Jorge Ubico, a close ally of the United Fruit Company (UFC), who served the interests of wealthy landowners and compared himself to Adolf Hitler. After the second revolutionary president Jacobo Árbenz enacted Decree 900, a 1952 agrarian reform law that benefited approximately 500,000 peasant and indigenous Guatemalans to the detriment of the UFC, the CIA (led by UFC board member Allen Dulles) launched Operation PBFORTUNE, the precursor to the 1954 Operation PBSUCCESS which violently toppled the Árbenz government in the United States’ first Latin American Cold War intervention.
While visiting two political prisoners being held in the Cobán jail, one of the men told me that his imprisonment was the result of a legacy of violence and corruption unleashed by the 1954 CIA coup. Indeed, violence was directly facilitated by foreign powers, particularly the United States and Israel, during the 36-year internal conflict and genocide in Guatemala (1960-1996). More than 80 percent of all victims were indigenous Maya civilians and 93 percent of all killings were carried out by military forces, according to the United Nations-backed truth commission. December 29, 2021 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of a peace accord that brought an end to the internal conflict, but “if any peace prevails in Guatemala, it is a peace resembling war.”
Resistance in the face of corporate exploitation and extreme state-sanctioned violence
The environmentally destructive Fenix nickel mine in El Estor has operated under the ownership of four different international mining companies since 1964 and is currently illegally run by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (GNC), a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Solway Investment Group. Since its arrival in 2011, Solway has consistently used violence and intimidation in an attempt to silence local opposition to the mine. As a result of the continuation of mining operations despite its ordered suspension by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, on October 4, 2021 the ancestral authority known as the four Q’eqchi’ Councils in the municipality of El Estor in the Izabal department declared a formal state of resistance against the mine and the corporate cultivation of African Palm oil on indigenous territory. After 17 days of peaceful resistance following the October 4 declaration, the National Civil Police (PNC) forcefully evicted a community encampment created to block the passage of mining materials to the Fenix mine. Shortly thereafter, the Government of Guatemala declared the second state of siege in El Estor within the past 14 months, passing Decree 9-2021, which allowed for the mobilization of 500 soldiers and 350 PNC to crack down on “civil unrest” and “restore order and public security”. Months of state-sponsored terror has ensued.
The Convergence for Human Rights Coalition has reported disproportionate use of force by police, soldiers, and agents of the Public Ministry against the community and journalists including the use of tear gas against women and children, physical attacks, illegal detention, and destruction of property. In early December when I was in Cobán, I spoke with a journalist returning from El Estor who said he was repeatedly harassed, detained, and assaulted by police and military. I also spoke with a community leader and former political prisoner from El Estor who claimed that more than 50 community members had been killed since the siege began including by being run over by military vehicles.
After a paramilitary group burned down Q’eqchi’ homes outside El Estor and police evicted the remaining villagers to clear land for the NaturAceites African palm company, viral videos sparked nine U.S. congressional representatives to release a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging for the evaluation of “U.S. support and training for the Guatemalan police and military.” The letter makes clear the significant possibility that U.S. military equipment, including vehicles, Pegasus software and biometric data sharing technology, are being used to surveil and target indigenous and political opposition leaders in Guatemala.
Ending a vicious cycle: U.S. security funding & neoliberal development, repression, displacement, forced migration, and repeat
In June 2021, Vice president Kamala Harris traveled to Guatemala to tell the Guatemalan people not to come to the United States with assurances of addressing the “root cause” of migration. However, it is abundantly clear that this was a perverse cooptation of progressive terminology as the Biden administration intends to do the exact opposite. Harris has translated policy advice from Wall Street and Big Tech into a continuation of neocolonial exploitation in Central America through $1.2 billion in private sector investment from some of the world’s most egregious human rights violators like the Cargill corporation. Cargill’s top palm oil supplier Wilmar International Limited, has been implicated in acts of violence, intimidation, and home demolition in Indonesia that mirror the violent evictions carried out on behalf of the NaturAceites African palm company near El Estor.
In coordination with Harris’s “public-private partnership” publicized as the “Call to Action” for Central America, an “independent” NGO, the “Partnership for Central America (PFCA)”, which partners “closely with the U.S. State Department”, also announced “significant commitments to address the root causes of migration”. The PFCA’s board of directors includes Klaus Schwab, the Founder & Executive Chairman of the elite Davos-based World Economic Forum, who openly advocates for a “Great Reset” towards a system of global technocracy based on stakeholder capitalism. Representatives from other predatory capitalist institutions on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley include the Executive Chairman of Mastercard Ajay Banga and the President of Microsoft Brad Smith. From 2010-2019, Microsoft made $14.6 million from contracts with ICE. A little more than a year after 300 Microsoft employees signed a letter calling on the company to cancel these contracts in the midst of Trump’s family separation policy, Microsoft-owned Git Hub renewed a $200,000 ICE contract.
Claims that militarized “smart” borders, private sector investment, and a continuation of the neoliberal development model will deter migration are thoroughly contested by decades of repression, displacement, and forced migration experienced in indigenous communities like Monte Olivo and El Estor. Until this development and security model is dismantled and indigenous and peasant communities are allowed to work the land of their ancestors in peace, the violent status quo will continue in perpetuity. For individuals seeking ways to challenge this status quo, standing in solidarity with indigenous communities defending their land and the environment throughout the Americas should be a top priority.
This solidarity could include boycotting and divesting from companies involved in this new era of tech and finance-based capitalist exploitation, protesting against this development model, or donating to funds that go directly to indigenous communities. One such fundraiser includes “Friends of Latin America’s (FoLA) Fund for Political Prisoners in Guatemala” which, in partnership with the Guatemala Solidarity Project (GSP) and other local social movements, distributes financial support to indigenous political prisoners and their families. This support helps community-based social movements continue to organize and mobilize against the repressive global neoliberal capitalist forces that continuously push for the exploitation and complete control of land, labor, and the natural world.