Women in Resistance–discussing Human Rights Defenders with Claudia Samayoa

Claudia Samayoa, speaks to our delegation about Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders and the War on Drugs’ impact on Guatemala

Our final meeting on Monday was with Claudia Samayoa, a Coordinator from UDEFEGUA, which stands for the La Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala translated in English as the Protect Unit of Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders. I was especially interested in hearing from Claudia since our delegation leaders had mentioned UDEFEGUA had helped the K’iche Peoples’ Council, the organization co-led by Lolita Chavez, conduct a risk analysis of how transnational development projects would affect their region. Claudia delivered a dynamic talk brimming with information,  sardonic humor, and rapid hand gestures as illustrated above.

Claudia opened her talk by explaining the historical context that led to UDEFEGUA’s founding. After the signing of the Peace Accords marked the end of the Internal Armed Conflict, UDEFEGUA was created in 2000 to address the return of “Military Mafia” and the attacks against Guatemalans working to promote and protect human rights, hereafter referred to as “human rights defenders.” UDEFEGUA established preventative measures to reduce the severity of attacks against human rights defenders, and also provides legal assistance to help human rights defenders attain justice for attacks committed against them. UDEFEGUA also has a program that works with children of deceased human rights defenders to ensure that children do not lose opportunities to education, which often happens when a parent who is a human rights defender dies. An additional program provides mental health services for massacre and attack survivors.

Claudia elaborated on the social and political factors in Guatemala that inform UDEFEGUA’s work. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1998, Guatemala had established a strong human rights framework in a constitution that had 125 human rights commitments. This constitution also responded to Guatemala’s economic and social inequalities by providing education and health care, yet this constitution remains unimplemented. Claudia added that Guatemala’s broken tax system is an additional reason for the inequities in  education, health care, and food access.  She cited a sad statistic–1/3 of Guatemalans experience food insecurity, and half of all children and more than 70% of the elderly are malnourished.

According to Claudia, Guatemala’s social policies ignore people and use destructive industry to get ahead, and she cited the mining licensing process as an example of this practice. Recently, the Guatemalan government changed the mining licensing laws so that human rights and environmental rights consultations are no longer needed for a license to be awarded. Now, the Guatemalan government only requires companies to conduct a geographic assessment before building mines. As the mine is being built, the company conducts environmental, social, and human rights assessments, but the outcome of these assessments do not prevent the mines from being built.

Additional considerations are the economic impact mines have on the communities where they are built. Claudia explained that mining companies are usually tax exempt, and seldom create jobs for the indigenous residents, and if the mining companies do create jobs, these jobs tend to offer minimum wages without health care. Not only do mining corporations  perpetuate this cycle of “the rich get richer,” they also displace entire communities. In 2003, the government gave 273 mining licenses to companies in Alta Verapaz and Peten, which led to the displacement and forced evictions of the indigenous communities who had lived in these regions.

Further complicating these matters is the current Presidential Administration of Otto Perez Mollina, who has inhibited protests against the mining corporations by declaring that “defaming a company of national interests is a crime against national security.” This declaration evokes the counter-insurgency strategies used to suppress indigenous communities during the Armed Conflict, and has sparked a climate of fear that any actions of protest against the mining projects could lead to terrorism charges.

Increased militarization presents an additional threat to communities’ safety. The government has also created new military policies and a task force to address demonstrations and riots against mining projects. Also, the military is conducting trainings  in public and private schools. Claudia’s statement reminded me of our conversation with Lolita Chavez on Saturday. Lolita had described the military conducting a training her son’s school, and how much this occurrence rekindled old fears because the military also trained in schools during the Armed Conflict.

In addition to the outbreak of fear and suppression  due to mining and militarization, the War on Drugs has also created new patterns of violence.  Claudia summarized this change with the pithy comment– “originally drug lords were like the Godfather, beloved without committing violence, but now they are like Calderon.” She elaborated that the War on Drugs has pushed dramatic violence, as well as rape, femicides, and the trafficking of women and children as a means to control territories. The War on Drugs has also led to the corruption of policy makers. Claudia quipped that the mayor and 1/4 of governors are drug lords, and most parties are controlled by drug and trafficking cartels, who are now part of government and congress. Claudia added that Operation Fast & Furious presented an example of how trafficking can occur “through the back channel” even when laws regulate against it.  Although she optimistically indicates hope that the newly elected attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz has begun prosecuting drug lords.

Claudia wound up her talk with a discussion of recent threats against Guatemalan human rights defenders. She cited Lolita Chavez as an example of a defender who has 16 lawsuits against her, and who has been receiving accompaniment to increase her safety since 2003. She related Lolita and the K’iche People’s Council’s struggle to contest development in her community with a understated sense of humor, evident in her description of how the former Mayor of Santa Cruz del K’iche “met an unfortunate end after an encounter with a high-tension cable.” Yet Claudia was quick to note the pervasive prejudice against Lolita, who has been accused of witchcraft causing the Mayors death, and is even known as “that witch” by the Ombudsman. She revealed that  journalists are also experiencing increased suppression under the Mollina administration because the system must portray Mollina “as superman.” Journalists who do not comply in painting this illustrious portrait of Mollina are censored and denounced as corrupt.

Our delegation wrapped up our discussion by asking Claudia to pose for a group picture. She amiably agreed, and added, “and I want to take a picture with this lady,” pointing to my fellow delegate. She paused for a beat and said, “I had the exact same face when I was her age, and I want to show my mother!’

 Chewing on the Clinton Foundation’s Award to Otto Perez Mollina

In my last post about our delegation’s meeting with Luz, I reflected on internal changes in my perceptions that occurred in the time from the meeting until the post’s publication. Here, I wish to comment on external changes to the global landscape that tie into themes discussed above. On September 24, 2012  the Clinton Foundation gave current President and past war criminal Otto Perez Mollina an award for his “Zero Hunger Campaign.” This award seems especially incongruous given the statistics on  pervasive food insecurity that Claudia had cited. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission, Rights Action, and other activists individuals and organizations have expressed their shock and disappointment about the Clinton Foundation’s award by writing on the Clinton Foundation’s Facebook Page and Twitter Feed. The article “Former President Bill Clinton to give a ‘special recognition’ to “genocidal” general, now ‘President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala,’ explains the protest campaign. http://hablaguate.com/articles/12067-former-president-bill-clinton-to-give-a-special-recognition-to-genocidal-general-now-president-otto-perez-molina-of-guatemala

Learn more about Guatemala’s tax system

1. “Guatemala Tax Rates.” http://www.taxrates.cc/html/guatemala-tax-rates.html This webpage explains the income tax, corporate tax, and sales tax/VAT tax rate in Guatemala.

Learn more about the forced evictions in Alta Verapaz and El Petan

1. “March of thousands in Guatemala calls for an end to forced evictions.” Amnesty International. March 29, 2012. http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/march-thousands-guatemala-calls-end-forced-evictions-2012-03-29 This article from Amnesty International highlights the 215 km march that occurred in March 2012, which was organized to commemorate the first anniversary of the forced eviction of 12 Indigenous communities in Valle de Polochic, Alta Verapaz. The march was also part of a campaign to urge the government to address the problem of land disputes and forced evictions.

2. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission. “Ongoing Violent Land Evictions Violate Human Rights and Victimize Guatemala’s Most Marginalized Populations.” August 31, 2011. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/Resources/2011/GHRC_denounces_violent_evictions.htm This action alert from the Guatemala Human Rights Commission expresses concern for the evicted community members in Sierra del Lacandón, Petén, and provides valuable  information on governmental and social factors informing the evictions in both English and Spanish.

Learn more about the impact of the War on Drugs on Guatemala

1. Paley, Dawn. “Guatemala: The Spoils of an Undeclared War.” Upside Down World. August 21, 2012. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/3823-guatemala-the-spoils-of-an-undeclared-war  Dawn Paley gives a compelling account of how communities in La Libertad, Petén have gotten swept up into the War on Drugs, and how the War on Drugs acts as the front story allowing corporations to develop Peten for oil companies.

2. Ruiz-Goiriena, Romina and Martha Mendoza. “Guatemala Drug War: 200 U.S. Marines Join Anti-Drug Effort.” August 29, 2012. Huffington Post.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/29/guatemala-drug-war_n_1841335.html At the end of August 2012, 200 U.S. Marines were deployed to Guatemala to fight the War on Drugs in  “Operation Martillo” or “Hammer.” Although this article is nearly a month old, it gives solid background information on the Operation. For more recent news, I recommend checking out The Daily Beast and Insight Crime.  To learn more general news about the War on Drugs, I also recommend exploring exploring “Operation Fast and Furious,” which is covered on many major and alternative news sites.

Learn more about UDEFEGUA and Guatemala’s peace process after the Armed Conflict

1. UDEFEGUA Guatemala. http://udefegua.org This is the official website for the Unit of Protection for Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders.

2. Alvarez, Enrique and Tania Palencia Prado. “Guatemala’s peace process: Context, analysis and evaluation.” Conciliation Resources. 2002. http://www.c-r.org/accord-article/guatemala%E2%80%99s-peace-process-context-analysis-and-evaluation Conciliation Resources has published a comprehensive article that analyzes the challenges to implementing the Peace Accords and Constitution. This article deepens insight into the historical, political, economic, and social realities Claudia addressed as well as the rationale behind UDEFEGUA’s founding.

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