The Assassinations of Indigenous Leaders in Guatemala Trigger Fear as Political Cycle Begins

By all accounts on the morning of May 9, 2018, Luis Arturo Marroquín did not know he was being followed when he left his home to travel to a meeting in San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa, Guatemala. The 56-year-old was a community leader and member of the coordinating committee of the Guatemalan Campesino Development Committee (CODECA). Founded in 1992 on Guatemala’s southern coast, CODECA is a human rights organization focused on improving the conditions of the rural poor, advocating for land reform, the nationalization of energy, and the improvement of wages for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous rural workers and farmers.

Marroquín was traveling to a meeting with other members from the organization. He stopped at a small store to make a few copies before his meeting, but he would not leave alive. Shortly after his arrival, a black Toyota Hilux pickup also arrived at the store. Two men got out, entered the store and opened fire, killing Marroquín. Concerned onlookers wrote down the license plate of the vehicle, which was later identified as belonging to José Manuel Mendez Alonzo, the mayor of the nearby municipality of San Pedro Pinula, Jalapa. Mendez Alonzo is also known to be an ally of the embattled administration of President Jimmy Morales.

According to a preliminary police report obtained by Truthout and confirmed by Hilda Pineda, the head of Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Human Rights Office, agents from the Guatemalan National Police located the vehicle that witnesses identified after the murder of Marroquín. Inside the vehicle were Mayor Mendez Alonzo and his two bodyguards, Otto Edilcer Najera Estrada and Carlos Romeo Jimenez Estrada — both of whom were armed with guns, as well as two machetes and a military-style knife.

The police documented the identifications of the passengers and weapons located in the vehicle, but released the two bodyguards and the mayor — who, according to Guatemalan law, benefits from immunity from prosecution for crimes while in office. Najera Estrada and Jimenez Estrada remain key suspects in the murder, yet the initial investigation has yet to find a direct link between pistols found in the vehicle and the one used to kill Marroquín.

“At the moment, there is no evidence that connects them to the crime,” Pineda told Truthout. “However, we are not discarding any possibility. We are continuing with the investigation.”

On May 9, 2018, Luis Arturo Marroquin was murdered in San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa, Guatemala. Witnesses report seeing two men exit a vehicle before gunning Marroquin down and fleeing the scene. Onlookers wrote down the license plate of the vehicle, which was later identified as belonging to Mayor Jose Manuel Mendez Alonzo. Once apprehended, passengers of the vehicle were identified as Alonzo and his two bodyguards, armed with pistols: a 40mm Glock (a common pistol used by police forces), a 9mm Smith and Weston with an extended clip, and a $2,200 40mm Tangfolio Limited Custom, as well as two machetes and a military grade knife. The police documented the identifications and weapons located in the vehicle, but released the mayor and his bodyguards.
On May 9, 2018, Luis Arturo Marroquin was murdered in San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa, Guatemala. Witnesses report seeing two men exit a vehicle before gunning Marroquin down and fleeing the scene. Onlookers wrote down the license plate of the vehicle, which was later identified as belonging to Mayor Jose Manuel Mendez Alonzo. Once apprehended, passengers of the vehicle were identified as Alonzo and his two bodyguards, armed with pistols: a 40mm Glock (a common pistol used by police forces), a 9mm Smith and Weston with an extended clip, and a $2,200 40mm Tangfolio Limited Custom, as well as two machetes and a military grade knife. The police documented the identifications and weapons located in the vehicle, but released the mayor and his bodyguards.
The black Toyota Hulix pickup that witnesses say was involved in the murder of Luis Arturo Marroquin on May 9, 2018.
The black Toyota Hulix pickup that witnesses say was involved in the murder of Luis Arturo Marroquin on May 9, 2018.

Campesinos Targeted for Their Activism

The day Marroquín was killed, representatives of CODECA filed the official paperwork with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to legalize the group’s political arm, the Movement for Peoples’ Freedom (MLP), as a legal political party that will participate in the September 2019 elections. The party is currently going through the process for official recognition by the electoral body. As the Guatemalan daily newspaper Prensa Libre reports, Marroquín was planning to run for mayor of San Pedro Pinula with the MLP, the same town where the vehicle identified by witnesses on May 9 reportedly originated.

“The strongest hypothesis of this investigation right now is that Mr. Marroquín had intended to participate in the upcoming election, [and] that this was the primary motivation of the crime,” Pineda told Truthout. “We believe this was a politically motivated crime.”

Luis Arturo Marroquín was killed in what many within the movement of small farmers, known in Spanish as campesinos, see as a campaign of terror against them. Since May 9, seven campesino leaders from CODECA and the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA) have been murdered.

“Every day it is getting worse,” Leiria Teresa Vay Garcia, a leader from CODECA, told Truthout. And in the weeks that followed, the situation deteriorated.

Just days after the assassination of Marroquín, two leaders associated with the CCDA, Mateo Chamán Pau and José Pau Xol, were murdered by unknown assailants in the towns of San Juan Tres Ríos and Choctun Basilá in the department of Alta Verapaz. On May 30, yet another leader with CCDA, Ramon Choc Sacrab, was attacked with a knife in the community of Ixloc San Pedrito. He died days later from his injuries.

On June 3, Florencio Pérez Nájera and Alejandro Hernández García, two organizers with CODECA, had met with members of the organization in the community of Llano Largo in Jutiapa to discuss land rights. They were supposed to return to their homes that night after the meeting, but failed to arrive. Their families thought that maybe they had stayed with members of the community, but the following day, their bodies were found along a highway, showing signs of torture. Days later, another community leader, Francisco Munguia, a 78-year-old with CODECA from the village of Divosadero Xalapan, Jalapa, died on the way to a hospital after being attacked with a machete. There are no known suspects in these attacks.

For the members of CODECA and CCDA, the people responsible for the assassination of Marroquín are clear: They blame the Guatemalan government.

“CODECA publicly holds President Jimmy Morales responsible,” wrote the campesino organization in a press statement issued following the killing of Marroquín. “In a speech [Morales] gave … on May 2, he tried to foment hate and resentment toward CODECA. Instead of seeking national unity in his speech, he aimed to incite animosity and divide the people.”

The week before Marroquín was murdered, the president spoke at a rally of workers from the Guatemalan central market that support his administration. Morales has come under investigation for illicit financing during the 2015 presidential election. In his speech, Morales targeted CODECA because of the death of a child during a November 2017 protest demanding his resignation. During that protest, members of campesino organizations had blocked a highway across the country.

In early June, following the assassinations of the campesinos, representatives of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission were visiting Guatemala and meeting with Indigenous leaders. The Commission has been meeting regularly with Indigenous leaders in Guatemala following the increase of repression and discrimination against Indigenous organizers in Guatemala in the last decade.

The UN Commission issued a statement voicing concern for the growing campaign of terror against campesinos.

“We are concerned about what appears to be a deteriorating climate for the defense of human rights in Guatemala,” Ravina Shamdasani, the Commission’s spokesperson, said in a press release. “We call on the authorities to promptly investigate these murders and other attacks and threats against human rights defenders, and to ensure that those found responsible are held accountable. We also urge the State to adopt all necessary measures to ensure a safe, enabling environment for human rights defenders to carry out their work free from threats and attacks.”

The murders of campesino leaders is unprecedented in the two decades since Guatemala’s 36-year-long internal armed conflict ended in 1996, suggests Simon Granovsky-Larsen, an assistant professor of politics and international studies at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

A Thorn in the Side of the Government

CODECA represents more than 90,000 campesinos in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. The MLP is still working for official recognition, but the party already has over 23,000 registered members. CODECA has worked diligently to train and educate the communities of their political and human rights.

The prospect of CODECA running for positions in the Guatemalan political system has the Guatemalan political elite nervous. In 2012, former President Otto Pérez Molina referred to the organization as a “social cancer” because of the organization’s protests against high costs of energy and social inequalities. Since the fall of Pérez Molina in 2015 on corruption charges, organizers have maintained pressure on the Morales administration over its own corruption charges.

Both CODECA and the CCDA have sought to put pressure on the political status quo in the streets and within the government. The economic and political elites have sought to derail the movement through the criminalization of the leadership of CODECA and through accusations of fraud and corruption in the organization. Yet every investigation has failed to find evidence of these accusations.

“There has been a strong campaign of misinformation about the organization,” Vay Garcia told Truthout. “[The government and Public Prosecutor’s Office] talk about crimes committed by members of the organization, but have not been able to show any evidence of these alleged crimes.”

She adds, “We believe that since they … cannot show evidence of crimes … now they are carrying out this campaign of terror in order to destabilize the organization of the communities.”

In May 2018, the Morales administration requested the change of the ambassadors from Sweden and Venezuela over their support for both CODECA and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity, which played an important role in the investigation and persecution of Pérez Molina.

Since 2012, CODECA has sought to propose a constitutional assembly to re-found the Republic of Guatemala. These efforts accelerated during the administration of Molina, in part due to the corruption scandal that eventually led to the president’s resignation and prosecution for the cooptation of the state. But faced with the continued corruption in the Morales administration, CODECA proposed to resolve the problem from within the Guatemalan political system.

“After analyzing the situation in the country, we realized that with the political parties that are currently in government and with the levels of corruption, we could never advance in a constitutional assembly,” Vay Garcia told Truthout. “These sectors that are in power now will not allow it. So, we decided to pursue a political instrument that would represent the communities [in the government].”

The CCDA has also been active in challenging the Morales administration. In 2015, Leocadio Juracan, then general coordinator of the CCDA, won a congressional seat as part of the Covergencia party, a coalition of social movements and members of the political left.

As the assassinations and criminalization increase, the Morales government seems to be avoiding any work to resolve the conflicts across Guatemala. In August 2017, campesinos associated with the CCDA occupied the street in front of the presidential palace to demand that the administration comply with an agreement made by the administration of Otto Pérez Molina to resolve more than 40 conflicts over land. The occupation ended after four days, when the administration decided to comply with the agreement. However, the assassination of community leader and CCDA member Chamán Pau in May 2018 has undermined the campesinos’ faith that the government will comply with the agreement.

“To date, governmental institutions have not complied with any of the points of the agreement,” Lesbia Artola, a representative from CCDA in Alta Verapaz, told Truthout. “The government lacks any willingness to resolve the conflicts in Alta Verapaz.”

As Artola points out, many of these communities, including San Juan Tres Ríos and Choctun Basilá, have filed lawsuits for violations of human rights and attempted assassinations in the past. Yet none of these cases seem to be under investigation by prosecutors.

A Message of Terror

Decades after the end of the war, land remains one of the core causes of social conflicts in Guatemala. Today, a small land-holding elite controls the majority of arable land, which leaves the majority of campesinos with insufficient or no land to support their families.

Campesino organizations have played an important role in the movement of rural farmers in demanding the right to land, as well as against the corruption that plagues Guatemala. These organizations have taken different forms of action to demand access to land. For many in the movement, the recent violence seems intended to terrorize those who struggle for land rights.

“These criminal acts have been registered in different departments … geographically it can be said that they have no relation, but it is evident that there is a relationship in intentionality,” wrote Jose Gabriel Cubur in a blog post. “[T]here are clandestine groups or apparatuses that try to spread terror and fear in indigenous and campesino organizations, so that they do not continue to defend the collective rights of indigenous peoples, human rights and nature rights.”

According to the campesinos, the goal of the state’s violence is to demobilize the populations that clamor for their rights and for a Guatemalan state that represents the interests of the citizens of the country. Added to this, the ruling political and economic elites seek to maintain the corruption and impunity that has scarred the two decades since the end of the war.

“CODECA is not just in the struggle for land and the nationalization of resources, but rather that we are calling for a Constitutional Assembly to re-found the state,” Vay Garcia told Truthout. “This bothers them because they feel they are losing control, especially now that CODECA and other organizations are trying to establish our own political instrument. This is why they are killing our comrades.”