Exactly 32 years ago today a massacre took place in the small town of Panzos, in Alta Verapaz. A group of campesinos had gathered in the town square to protest about the depredations of local landowners, among them the town’s long time mayor, who had been taking over their land. The situation had grown tenser and tenser over a many years as the campesinos had been on the losing side of a long attrition, as more and more land was grabbed on behalf of mineral interests. Indeed, Panzos is not so far from the region where there have been more recent struggles with mineral extraction companies, such as the Skye Resources mine in El Estor where trouble erupted in 2005. The campesinos found themselves sealed in, all exits to the square were blocked, and soldiers from the nearby army base then fired on them. The bodies of the dead were removed and buried in a mass grave at the edge of the cemetery, where they stayed until 1997 when they were exhumed during one of the four exhumations carried out as part of the investigations of the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH). In all the remains of 35 people were discovered, though only two were ever identified. The Panzos massacre was also one of the illustrative cases studied in detail by the CEH.
The massacre in Panzos took place shortly after Lucas Garcia was elected in March 1978, but before he took over power from Kjell Laugerud Garcia in July. The Panzos massacre was the first of its kind, presaging what was to happen over the highlands in a more organised way in subsequent years. Its status as a turning point has attracted a lot of academic attention, being the “Last Colonial Massacre” in the title of Greg Grandin’s book, and also the subject of a recent book by Victoria Sanford, to mention just two examples.
In a statement issued to commemorate the massacre the Coordinación Genocidio Nunca Más (Genocide No More Coordination) make a link between what happened in Panzos and the current struggles over land and the demands of mineral exploitation companies. In the past few years the whole issue of mineral extraction has caused a great deal of conflict: protestors have been criminalised, threatened and some have been killed. Many of those involved in these struggles are women, who see what they are doing in terms not only of protecting themselves but also Mother Earth and the health and well-being of future generations. This is brought home well in a video made by Michael Watts for the Latin American Mining Monitoring Project – LAMMP around a conference that took place in Guatemala in March. We were lucky enough to have some women from various organisations and Latin American countries speak in London back in October, again under the auspices of LAMMP. It was clear then that there are some brave and determined women who are paying a heavy price for standing up to be counted.
In the CEH report’s discussion of the Panzos massacre it has this to say in the conclusion: (author translation)
The CEH considers that this case is illustrative of the influence of the land owning sector in the utilisation of the apparatus of the state, so that it might resolve in its favour conflicts over the ownership of land, applying armed violence against poor campesinos and involving the army in the agrarian problem.
Recast this in terms of mineral companies and their use of the legal system and their private security versus those same campesinos and it does not seem so different then from now. The ILO has called for the suspension of all mining activities, with campesion organisations talking of “de facto measures” being taken. The government has a duty to reduce the current levels of tension, by listening to what the ILO has to say as well as, as it appears now, just certain companies, before we do end up with something worse. I would never suggest it might end up in a situation like 1978, but it would be worth studying what it was that led to Panzos, 29 May 1978, and learning from it.