Totonicapán, Those Who Are No Longer With Us.

“On the night of October 4th, Totonicapán hospital was completely overshadowed by a halo of confusion and crying. A sour, toxic, acidic odour, the typical stench of tear gas, much alike to pepper – although much worse – was hanging in the air, both inside and out. The people, who were squashed into the place with expressions of uncertainty, were giving off a subtle, yet powerful smell of pepper. A similar aroma was coming from inside the ambulances. The stench of tear gas had also impregnated the uniforms of the doctors, nurses and some policemen.”

So begins a wonderful article by Oswaldo J. Hernández as recently published on the Plaza Pública website where you will find all links and references. Plaza Pública is, in my opinion, one of the more essential sources of comment in Guatemala.

We are very grateful to Natasha da Silva for the translation.

“In Cantón Chipuac, the dead are buried surrounded by the milpa, next to the corn. Jesús Baltazar Caxaj Puac was one of those who died in Alaska. Early on October 4th, he and his son Caxaj Eligio Santos went down to the main road. They were armed with their lunches, beans and a few tortillas. “Their struggle” was for their authorities to continue being recognised by the government.

At the heart of the matter, Sapón warns that the other factor that could be dangerous for ancestral organisations is an amendment to Article 66. Firstly, because the amendment will enable the State to assume an inappropriate protection concerning indigenous peoples. and secondly, because it does not recognise “social organisation” of the native peoples.

The smell of gas – at times unbearable – was a remnant of the demonstration in Totonicapán hours earlier, in which it had played a key role. Beside the dead and wounded that were taken to hospital, the insidious tear gas lingered.

All around, tears and irritated eyes seemed inevitable.

Yet at that time, very few of the almost 2000-strong community members within the hospital facilities had been affected by the gas that hung in the air. Their tears that night were caused by the pain of receiving their dead and wounded. They all waited attentively for the ambulances, one after another, which would arrive with one casualty then another, one fatality then another. The hospital report of October 4th, read out by German Aguilar, Director of Dr José Felipe Flores National Hospital of Totonicapán, would count: “6 people killed and 34 injured by gunfire; 9 with bruises or fractures, 1 with sprained ankle, 4 intoxicated, 3 with stab wounds, 1 wounded by shrapnel,1 in shock, 1 undiagnosed and 14 with gunshot wounds”.

All of the resulting casualties and fatalities were indigenous K’iches.

The report did not specify the calibre of the bullets.

That day, Totonicapán went out to demonstrate and as a result, it was forcefully put down. Peasants, teachers, college students, indigenous leaders and households heads blocked the Inter-American Highway at three points; Alaska, Xecanchavox and Cuatro Caminos. They threw sticks and stones at the uniformed personnel of the combined security forces of the State who, among elements of the National Civil Police (PNC) and army soldiers, were wearing bulletproof uniforms and were carrying shields, batons, gas grenades, trucks, lethal and deterrent weapons, as well as orders for the PNC to unblock the road.

“Our dead are the dead of all the communities, from all of Totonicapán” claimed a neighbour in the hospital, in the midst of so many people to console, and so very few to console them.

At the back of the hospital, near to the morgue, with tearful eyes and blood-stained sandals, the widow of Arthur Felix Sapón Yax asked, “How will I explain to my children that their father was killed by the government…and that we elected that government?”

Another widow Josefa Barreno said distressfully, between sobs, “They fought for our rights but as always, the government never listened …and now they’re all dead.”


Presidential House, 4/10/2012.Mauricio López Bonilla, Minister of the Interior, gave the first press conference on what happened in Totonicapán, looking shaken and upset. Yes, he assured, orders to clear the area had been followed – “I want to be emphatic about this,” he said – none of the soldiers or anyone else of the combined forces were authorised to shoot. “The civil forces and the army that supported us were not carrying firearms. The combined forces are equipped with non-lethal tools; tear gas and pepper spray. What they follow is a line of protocol.” The Executive’s first analysis: “This only happens when there’s a turbulent confrontation”. “The communities attacked each other”.


Totonicapán has a history of being a rebel territory. Atanasio Tzul, the first leader of Totonicapán, refused to pay taxes imposed by the Spanish Crown. Historians and scholars, such as Efraín Tzaquitzal, Pedro Ixchíu and Romeo Tiu, authors of the book Communal Mayors of Chwimiq’ina, argue that Totonicapán has been organising since 1545, during the time of the colonial councils; “although there were harsh laws and forms of Spanish government, they did not cease to recognise their own legitimate (indigenous) authorities and did not care much for the recognition of the Crown and the Spanish authorities.”

Five centuries later, communal authorities still exist in Totonicapán. They respect and recognise one another. They represent four areas at that level, eight villages, 36 hamlets, each with several smaller settlements, as well as two communities situated in Cantón Poxlajuj. These areas, villages and settlements form what has been known as “The indigenous people of the 48 Cantones (villages) of Totonicapán” from very ancient times.

On the morning of every second Saturday of the month, all the communal mayors meet on the first floor of 48 Cantones House, in the centre of Totonicapán. Anthropologist Stener Ekern explains what is discussed in these assemblies in his book K’iche Community and Leadership: “as with those taking place at village level, their duties are itemised in an agenda relating to the defence of indigenous peoples’ heritage in Totonicapán. Thus the main issue is preserving the sovereignty of the communities against all external powers, including agencies of the Government of Guatemala.” And when something affects or threatens the heritage of Totonicapan, its powers of call to action tend to be massive.

This is something that Totonicapán has been demonstrating over recent years.

In 1987, 48 Cantones was opposed to property self-assessment in order to defend their forest and managed to prevent the government from imposing a price on their lands. They rejected the Single Property Tax in 1998. In 2001, they spoke out against Value Added Tax (VAT). In 2005, they halted the General Water Law. In 2011, they protested massively against a rise in electricity rates. In almost all these cases, the President of 48 Cantones met with the then President in office.

However, when 48 Cantones protested against an electricity rate hike on October 4th 2012, which was also due to inadequate socialisation of the proposed constitutional reform and the imposed change to magisterial reform, President Otto Pérez Molina did not pay attention to Juana del Carmen Tacam, the current President of the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán, until it was all too late.

It would also be the first time that a massive demonstration was violently repressed in Totonicapán.


Guard of Honour, 5-10-2012. Ulises Anzueto, the Minister of Defense, was sitting right next to President Pérez Molina. It is one day after the Totonicapán demonstration. A photograph that was published via various channels exhibits a soldier with a rifle pointed towards an unidentified object within the demonstration. “I also saw the photograph”, Anzueto stammered in front of a few journalists, “he’s holding the arm but his finger is not on the trigger, the safety catch is on, you can analyse that in the image”. Hours later Anzueto contradicts himself, affirming something else and admitting that the army had in fact used high calibre rifles. The Executive’s second analysis: “Seven of the soldiers that were present admit to having fired”.


Before the first tear gas bomb was dropped, before the soldiers fired a single shot at the demonstrators, nobody listened to 48 Cantones. Totonicapán’s petition reached Presidential House and were met with heavy silence. Yet each request had been conceived well in advance.

For example, as an analysis from the community leaders explains, the constitutional reform totally eliminates indigenous authority figures in the future. “The local councils and community organisations are not considered in the new constitution. They have been avoided and omitted. They have been disappeared”, recounted Carmen Tacam.

According to the analysis of José Santos Sapón, lawyer of the San Miguel Arcángel co-cathedral in Totonicapán, the constitutional reform forces the indigenous people to accept a nation right from Article 1, “one single nation and not a single State”. “A nation is a human conglomeration of a sociological nature and the State is of a legal one”.

Sapón explains that this means that a State can be multiethnic, it can be one, but when Article 1 of the reform states that; “Guatemala is one united nation; within its unity and the integrity of its land, it is multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual”, Sapón, who also works in the Ministry of Justice of Totonicapán, explains that there’s no possibility for autonomy and no possibility for the indigenous peoples to be heard within this context.

“It’s about an indigenous nation, in which the indigenous is not recognised”, he points out.

Sapón argues that the other factor that could be dangerous for the ancestral organisations is the amendment to Article 66.

Firstly, as 48 Cantones of Totonicapán explain, because the amendment will enable the State to assume an inappropriate protection concerning indigenous peoples, and secondly, because it does not recognise “social organisation” of the native peoples.

Since 1985, in the first stage of the democratic era for Guatemala, Article 66 of the Constitution of the Republic has stated the following: “Protection of Ethnic Groups. Guatemala consists of diverse ethnic groups, including indigenous groups of Mayan descent. The State recognises, respects and promotes their way of life, customs, traditions, forms of social organisation, the wearing of traditional dress among men and women, languages and dialects”.

After the reform, this article could be transformed as follows: “Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The State recognises, respects and promotes the right to identity of the Mayan, Garífuna and Xinca peoples; it respects and promotes their way of life, of organisation, customs and traditions, the wearing of traditional dress among men and women, their different forms of spirituality, languages and dialects, and the right to pass them on to their descendants. It also recognises, respects and protects the right to use, preserve and develop their arts, sciences and technologies, as well as the right to access legally established sacred places and the law must determine what respects their identification and recognition”.

Sapón explains that the first change is that the State no longer “recognises, respects and promotes” but rather “recognises, respects and protects”. “We, the indigenous peoples, do not need protection”, says Sapón. “We need development. This change is a great setback for us. It’s a form of despotism”.

-And what about the article’s synopsis relating to Protection of Ethnic Groups?– I ask the lawyer.

-The synopsis does not explain it. It gives an idea but doesn’t explain it.

The subsequent amendment is the absence of social recognition. “Social organisation is left out of the reform, meaning that it simply mentions organisation. So if I were a Community Development Council (CoCoDe) or a Municipal Development Committee (CoMuDe), I’d already be an organisation so I wouldn’t have to recognise my indigenous authorities any longer, it nullifies them”, Sapón upholds.

The other problem with this article is the mention of the “right to use, preserve their arts, sciences and technologies, as well as the right to access legally established sacred places and the law must determine what respects their identification and recognition”. “And who makes the law?” ask Santos Sapón: “Congress. But who is Congress to decide what is and what isn’t a sacred place? So even the park steps could be made a sacred site. None of us would recognise it”.

-What reforms could be proposed from the perspective of the indigenous peoples?

-There are several. One would be to recognise of the concept of community within the Constitution, from Article 1. Another would be to amend Article 203, the monopoly of justice. Outside of the conventions, the official justice system does not recognise indigenous justice.


Public Prosecutor’s Office of Totonicapán, 5-10-2012. The auxiliary attorney of the Public Prosecutor’s Office Brenda Limatuj is in charge of the crime scene. In darkness, at minutes past two in the morning, the auxiliary attorney’s job is considered done. The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Sololá has compiled the evidence. The auxiliary attorney of the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Totonicapán has had the corpses removed. The confrontation area, which stretches across one kilometre of the Inter-American Highway, between Kilometre 169 and 170, comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Sololá. The Department Totonicapán begins at Kilometre 171.5. At dawn, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú was still finding fragments of ammunition, shotgun cartridges and calibre 5.56 bullet shells. “The scene was poorly managed”, Menchú indignantly pointed out. Countless black ribbons would decorate the facias of houses all over Totonicapán.


In 1996, the electricity service in Totonicapán (and nearly all of the country) went from being public to being owned by private Spanish companies. As the community leaders remark, DEOCSA-DEORSA brought in the first arbitrary increase in the price of electricity under their new terms.

Coupled with this established continual rise, another even more arbitrary increase of 62.5% of the bills was brought in three months ago. This happened after Actis acquired DEOCSA-DEORSA through their representative Jaime Tupper in May 2011. The business was rebranded as Energuate.

This company inherited almost 1.5 million customers across the country and is responsible for distributing energy in 20 of the 22 departments of Guatemala.
“We have been struggling against Unión FENOSA–DEOCSA for over 10 years and now against Energuate, for the continuous increase in service charges and frequent billing for public lighting in areas where it does not exist, which in turn affect the precarious financial situation of the indigenous and rural population of Totonicapán”, highlighted Deputy Mayor Hernández, whilst reading a statement.

During a brief speech in a press conference, the President of Tacam indignantly pointed out that the aforementioned company had lodged a complaint at the Public Prosecutor’s Office against the indigenous council of Totonicapán. “This goes against the self-determination of the Indigenous Peoples and tramples on their dignity”, Hernández concluded.


Sheriffs’ Office, Totonicapán. 5-10-2012. The Human Rights lawyer Jorge de León Duque, looked pale and unsettled. Outside, the bodies of Rafael Batz and Santos Nicolás Menchú of Pasajoc; Jesús Baltazar Caxaj Puac, Francisco Ordoñez, José Eusebio Puac Ordoñez of Cantón Chipuac; and Arturo Félix Sapón Yax of Panquix, were taken to a platform in the central park by people from their communities. Rigoberta Menchú spoke to the President in the same sheriffs’ office of the 48 Cantones. She left attorney De León Duque exposed –who was right by her side– and highlighted what had been said a day earlier: the importance of the right to freedom of movement relating to the fundamental right to life. De León Duque remained silent, looking pale. “The right to life comes first”, Tacam stressed. That day, the statue of Atanasio Tzul in Totonicapán Park would be covered with a black cloak as a sign of mourning.


Two months ago, President of 48 Cantones Carmen Tacam was weighing up the pros and cons of supporting college students in their struggle against the Reforms to the Teacher Training Subsystem Model (Educational Reform).

Hernández explained that everything changed suddenly when students were injured during a peaceful protest in defence of their rights last September, and many heads of households came to ask for advice, as well as to ask for the local council to get involved.

The local council states the following in their petition:

“We do not agree to this proposed educational reform, because it only refers to teaching colleges, and (an) educational reform should not apply only to school teachers. The proposal excludes all young students that do not pass the university entrance exams. There is no quality of education, as contents which were formerly developed in 3 years will now be compressed in 2. A deal is openly being done with the country’s education system and it is not clear about the budget for scholarships to all students continuing with higher education.”

So far, none of the three topics that provoked the demonstration have successfully been heard.


Guard of Honour, 6-10-2012. Surrounded by wounded soldiers convalescing in their wheelchairs, President Otto Pérez Molina explains the circumstances surrounding the behaviour of the combined forces at the demonstration. “An army contingent was on its way. When they were three kilometres away, the officer in charge spoke to the National Civil Police and was told that they were no longer needed because they had just received the order to withdraw the units”. “The three army vehicles; two trucks and a pick-up, were carrying a contingent equipped to deal with a civil disturbance, which means that the contingent was not armed”. “Those that were armed were the vehicle security guards; there were four armed soldiers in each of the trucks and three in the pick-up, while the rest of the contingent were unarmed”. The Executive’s third affirmation: “Seven soldiers were found to admit to firing by the Ministry of Defence investigation –7 of the 11 soldiers in the three vehicles– they fired their rifles in the air because they feared for their lives”. They fired.


In Cantón Chipuac, the dead are buried surrounded by the milpa, next to the corn. Jesús Baltazar Caxaj Puac was one of those who died in Alaska. Early on October 4th, he and his son Caxaj Eligio Santos went down to the main road.They were armed with their lunches, beans and a few tortillas. “Their struggle”, as the neighbours called in the demonstration, had two objectives; firstly, to make the government continue to recognise their authorities; to respect their orders and the sheriffs’ powers, and secondly, as Josefa Barreno laments, Santos Eligio studied at the Western Rural Teaching College and did not want, “our son to have to take so many years to start working after the educational reform”.

In Chipuac cemetary, Baltazar Caxaj Puac rests next to Francisco Ordoñez and José Eusebio Puac Ordoñez. The milpa surrounds them.

–They were my neighbours– said Santiago Monroy, lying in a hospital bed, wounded by a bullet in his leg.

–Were you in Alaska (Baltazar, Eusebio and Francisco had died in Alaska)? –I asked.

–They were killed by the soldiers.

–What happened in Alaska?

–The soldiers arrived and just started firing. They got out their vehicles and began to shoot. They got me in the leg. It’s a bullet.

–There were five soldiers– Domingo Puac chipped in from his bed. He was also hit by a bullet. He is also from Chipuac.

–As for me– says Puac –I ran twenty metres before it got me. That was when I realised that my toes were gone. That was in Alaska, around three in the afternoon. Look, sometimes it hurts us to kill a little animal but these guys…one of them even seemed like Rambo: Tacatacatacatacataca!

–Did you see any security guards with shotguns?

–Not where I was– says Puac.

Two days later in the hospital, Arturo Carrillo Rodas, one of the injured from Chuixchimal, explained: “It was the guard from the Cementos Progreso truck. He gunned down around three of us. We set fire to the truck. The soldiers suddenly began shooting. Some of us had our machetes taken off us. We had to run for it”.

According to information from Dr. Jorge Destarac, Regional Head of the National Forensic Science Institute (INACIF), the deceased were all injured by gunfire. There were eight in total: Rafael Batz (Pasajoc), Santos Nicolás Menchú (Pasajoc), Jesús Baltazar Caxaj Puac (Chipuac), Francisco Ordoñez (Chipuac), José Eusebio Puac Ordoñez (Chipuac), Arturo Félix Sapón Yax (Panquix), Domingo Caniz (Chipuac) and one more from Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán whose relatives did not allow INACIF to cut open his body, due to their cosmic belief that it would prevent him from reaching “Ajaw” (Heaven) intact.


Archdiocese of Los Altos-Quetzaltenango–Totonicapán, 6-10-2012: “We condemn the Government as responsible for this massacre for confronting a civil demonstration with armed soldiers. This is the bottom line. And we warn them not to blame individuals alone, such as one security guard or the individual soldiers who may end up as scapegoats in order to excuse the Government for the progressive militarisation which it is bringing to the country. We call on our political and judicial authorities to be honest and brave in discovering who is responsible and punishing them accordingly”.

Cacif, 7-10-2012: “We support unrestricted law enforcement and respect for the authorities, who have the responsibility of protecting the lives of the people, as well as guaranteeing their freedom of movement”.

UN-OHCHR, 7-10-2012: “In this situation it is important to stress that exercising the legitimate right to demonstrate is a cornerstone of a democratic State and it cannot lead to people being killed as a result”.

USA, 6-10-2012:“We expect the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Human Rights Attorney, the National Civil Police and the Ministry of the Interior to conduct a thorough investigation in order to clarify the facts”.

*With information from Juan Luis García

Categories: Environment


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