Santa Cruz Barillas wants its leaders back

Santa Cruz Barillas is a town in the Western Highlands in the Department of Huehuetenango and it has the misfortune to be the site of the Cambalam hydroelectric dam. The municipality has been the site of conflict since the issuing of the license to Hidro Santa Cruz, a subsidiary of the Spanish-owned company Hidralia Energy. The project was authorized despite the municipality’s decision — made in June, 2007 — not to allow the exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies. At that consulta, 46,000 residents voted against allowing hydroelectric companies to operate in the area and the parent company did not enter into negotiations with locals. Tensions rose with allegations that the company was using landmines to protect its equipment.

On 1st May this year, community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel was assassinated and two others were injured in an attack allegedly carried out by two agents of the company. Subsequently, the president declared martial law in Barillas, asserting that the community had seized military weapons in response to the assassinations. Martial law suspended constitutional rights in Barillas, including freedom of assembly. The state issued 29 arrest warrants for community leaders and detained 17, sending 12 of them to a high-security prison in Guatemala City without a trial. At the height of martial law, an estimated 850-army and national police officers were deployed in Santa Cruz Barillas. Thousands marched in Huehuetenango, the regional capital on May 15 to denounce governmental action.

We note that one of those community leaders imprisoned was recently released yet the remainder remain in jail.

The Maya Q’anjob’al people of Barillas suffered some of the worst state violence during Guatemala’s internal conflict and are once again resisting militarization. Today, however, there is no armed insurgency to justify the repression, only a mass movement that is challenging the development model being imposed by the government and multinational corporations.

Interestingly, ‘alternative media played a very important role in the case of Santa Cruz Barillas. The government mounted a massive media campaign about organized crime and drug trafficking … It was the alternative media that was able to penetrate social networks and spread information different from what the mass media was publishing. They were able to establish two versions of what took place, the official version of the state and the alternative version, which came from the people … Not all mass media, but some began publishing the information and questioning the martial law because of internet pressure. The state was forced to explain why they didn’t suspend the martial law, but their arguments had no basis. So we saw that the communities and alternative media were able to force the government to break the estado de sitio just days after its renewal.’

This latest incident is unfortunately part of Central America’s long history of conflict between hydroelectric companies and Indigenous groups that are often forcibly removed to make way for the dams.

In 1976, the Guatemalan government announced plans to move Achi Indians (who were living along the Chixoy River) in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The village of Rio Negro, the only one that had refused to relocate without adequate compensation, was attacked by soldiers in 1979. Three years later, in February 1982, 73 villagers were ordered to report to Xococ by the local military commander. Only one woman returned; the rest were raped, tortured and murdered by the local Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) in Xococ.

A month later, 177 Achi women and children were killed at the massacre of Rio Negro by Xococ patrolmen. Three members of the PAC were sentenced to death in 1998 for war crimes; in 2008 five more former paramilitaries were sentenced to 780 years in jail each for their role in events in Xococ.

To read more on the background you can read Beth Geglia at



Categories: Environment, Justice, Land

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