The arrest of eight soldiers in connection with the Totonicapán incident on October 4—which resulted in the deaths of at least seven Indigenous protestors—heralds the first test of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s mano dura (iron fist) approach to restoring law and order.
Pérez Molina campaigned for office promising to use the army, from which he is a retired general, to help combat narcoterrorism and the associated random violence that pervades the country. Instead, the remilitarization of Guatemala, with mixed army and Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) roadblocks a common sight, has brought back memories of the 36-year civil war where state brutality was a daily occurrence.
Events in Totonicapán, an Indigenous-majority department in the west of the country, are especially poignant on Día de la Hispanidad, which is a day to commemorate Indigenous resistance against Spanish conquerors. Hispanity Day, which is celebrated in the U.S. as Columbus Day, also saw a heavy police presence in Guatemala City as authorities feared a backlash by Indigenous groups.
Colonel Juan Chiroy Sal has been charged with extrajudicial murder as the commander of a detachment of the honor guard sent to Cuatro Caminos, an intersection that links Totonicapán with Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and Guatemala City. It is a frequent spot for demonstrations and the October 4 protest against rising electricity prices in the area saw other community members join in to complain about proposed changes to the Constitution and other education reforms.
Reports are mixed as to what happened when Colonel Chiroy arrived. The government claims that the officer ignored police advice not to continue. A second call came from the defense ministry warning him not to go any further but two trucks and a pickup consisting of a platoon of soldiers and a personal bodyguard detachment of 12 moved to within 500 meters of the protestors.
Within minutes after a confrontation began between the protestors and the army, it is believed that a private security guard escalated proceedings by discharging his shotgun in the air. However, this is still under investigation: the shells used are similar to the ones that the members of the Fuerzas Especiales Policía (Police Special Forces—FEP), who were also in attendance, use.
What is certain is that soldiers responded to the sticks and stones of the group with 108 bullets from their Galil rifles. The result was at least seven civilian deaths and over 30 wounded, with locals claiming the death toll to be higher.
"Both the constitution and other laws mandate that the obligation of officials is to preserve the lives and safety of civilians from the forces under his command," said Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. “When [Chiroy] identified risk, he did not contact the police commander who would have been able to call for help. The worst thing was that he abandoned his position and left security forces and the army without command."
Initially Pérez Molina claimed the soldiers were not armed, until photos appeared in Guatemalan media to the contrary. Since then the story has changed; now the government claims that the soldiers fired into the air to stop protestors setting fire to their truck.
The primary investigation report gives impressive detail of the events at such an early stage. The photographic and ballistic evidence led to the arrests Chiroy and his eight co-defendants: Dimas García; Abner Cruz Pérez; Manuel Lima; Edin Agustín Vásquez; Felipe Chub; Rosa Cervantes; Marcos Chun; and Abrahám Gua. They have since been moved to the military prison Mariscal Zavala while the investigation continues.
Reaction to the killings has been fierce with many Indigenous leaders calling for the resignation of Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto and Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla.
"Hopefully this will lead to trials of those that started the process but also the intellectual leaders,” said Juana del Carmen Tacán, president of the Asociación de los 48 Cantones de Totonicapán. "Someone must have given the order to shoot them; we want to know who they were. You have to get to the top."
Representatives from the area had traveled to Guatemala City in the hope of securing an audience with the president. They were in a meeting with governmental representative Miguel Angel Balcarcel when the shootings started.
Tacán added that the locals wanted compensation and investigations into the causes of the demonstration. Despite 82.2-percent malnourishment in Totonicapán, it ranks the 20th-least violent out of Guatemala’s 22 departments.
Director of the Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala—ODHAG), Nery Rodenas, said that the events in Totonicapán earlier this month violated the 1996 Guatemala Peace Accords.
“There is a very important peace agreement that has to do with the role of the military in a democratic society and the strengthening of civil society,” said Rodenas. “The army should not interfere in matters of internal security. We see what happened in Totonicapán, when tempers are heated a person with a gun is a threat."
Commentators in the national media are attempting to link Totonicapán with the continuous allegations that Pérez Molina himself was involved in army abuses in the Ixil region of Guatemala during the 1980s.
Responding to questions about Totonicapán, Pérez Molina said, “There is not the slightest doubt that there was a violation of the most sacred right we all need, which is the right to life." Defense Minister Anzueto added, “From the time that a rifle is given to a soldier it is their individual responsibility."
Guatemala has been enjoying a reimaging on the international scene, especially in the United Nations where it is currently a member of the Security Council.
However, the events of its national army in Totonicapán put it at risk of violating resolutions set up by the UN against torture, something that Guatemala has repeatedly been criticized for.
During previous governmental crises, Pérez Molina has shown a willingness to remain loyal to his cabinet and, thus far, there have been no ministerial changes. Whether the president can continue that policy in the light of events at Cuatro Caminos remains to be seen as Guatemala finds itself at a crossroads once again.
Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz. His Twitter account is @NicWirtz.
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