On October 4, 2012, Guatemalan soldiers opened fire on a crowd of several hundred unarmed peasants from the western highland department of Totonicapán, killing six and wounding 34 others. Joined by teachers, students and local indigenous authorities, the peasants had set up roadblocks along the Pan-American Highway to protest the hike in electricity prices, education reforms that would add two years of schooling for those training to become teachers, and proposed constitutional reforms they say fail to recognize the social role historically played by traditional Indigenous authorities.
Ten days after the melee, we traveled to the Totonicapán. What we found was the roots of a tragedy based on the cultural and institutional holdovers from Guatemala’s grisly, violent past. But surprisingly, we also found cause for optimism, a new sense of empowerment among the communities, a newfound institutional independence and commitment to seek justice, and the hope that these events may be a spark for broader reform.
Immediately after the events in Totonicapán, the Attorney General’s Office conducted an investigation that detailed the sequence of events that precipitated the killings. A convoy of 89 soldiers—including 77 members of a citizen security team equipped with anti-riot gear and 12 armed troops charged with their protection—under the command of Colonel Juan Chiroy traveled from the capital to the site of the roadblocks. On the way to the scene, Chiroy ignored repeated police requests that the convoy retreat. He ordered his troops instead to disembark at the highway passage “Alaska” and take up their positions. But when violence broke out between crowd and the forces, the commanding colonel hastily fled in an army pickup truck, accompanied by one of the military vehicles. Caught in the melee and left to their own devices, the remaining troops shot at the protestors, who later set fire to their vehicle.
During our visit, we surveyed the remnants of the crime scene that included debris from the army truck, along with a single-laced white sneaker tossed to its side. We also spoke with eyewitnesses who live in a small compound adjacent to the site of the confrontation. They described running for cover from whizzing bullets and, while cowering inside, observed the two-and-a-half-hour siege during which soldiers repeatedly took aim and fired to kill.
As proof of the soldiers’ murderous intentions, eyewitnesses pointed to windows smashed by bullets, standing up against them to show how the broken panes measured up to their chests or heads. They also told us that although some protesters fled, others resisted, pelting rocks and bottles at the assembled troops. And they pointed out a nearby embankment down which the remaining soldiers escaped as protestors jeered and the fighting dragged on. It was once the battle was over, they insisted, that the protestors torched the military truck.
The events of October 4, 2012 cannot be explained away as a mistake, an unfortunate incident, or an accident—though many officials and public commentators have tried to do so. What occurred was a massacre waiting to happen—the product of profound economic, social and political tensions that Guatemalan leadership has ignored and frequently exacerbated since the signing of peace accords in December 1996. The accords ended the 36-year armed conflict declared a genocide by the UN-sponsored truth commission; though, sadly, much of the hope surrounding many of the deeper reforms promised by the peace agreement has faded.
A sign promoting Otto Pérez Molina's iron-first policies hangs in Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala, in January 2008 after the conclusion of the 2007 presidential election run-off. Peréz Molina finished second in the contest. Photo: Courtesy of Flickr user "npatterson." Homepage Photo: Courtesy of Chitio Rendón.
For starters, the protests themselves illustrate the most recent chapter in a long history of systematic economic, political and cultural exclusion of the country’s Indigenous majority. Over the past decade, Guatemala has witnessed a sustained pattern of economic development that dispossesses and displaces Indigenous communities, whether through the exploitation of mineral and hydroelectric resources or the refusal to address the unequal distribution of land. The growing economic gap between the country’s elites and rural indigenous communities is matched by the disparity in political representation and influence. Oligarchic sectors continue to control the levers of state power while Indigenous Guatemalans remain far outside the democratic channels of participation and access at the national level. This context, combined with a rich and active level of local organization, ensures that the mass mobilization—like the protests that preceded the October 4 massacre—remains the only viable means of expressing popular grievances and voicing demands.
Additionally, the military’s violent response is a logical consequence of the mano dura (iron fist) policies that President (and retired general) Otto Pérez Molina has pursued since he assumed the presidency in January 2012. A policy justified by the penetration of organized crime and police incapacity, mano dura has remilitarized the country and reinforced a tendency to criminalize protests. Given the military’s institutional nature, by design oriented to eliminate external enemies, Guatemalan soldiers instinctively responded to the Totonicapán protests with violent repression rather than attempting peaceful demobilization. The military’s actions were also result of the indelible legacy of the Guatemalan armed conflict. Despite the many changes the armed forces have undergone since the signing of peace, their historical role as an agent of internal repression has entrenched the practice of meeting civilian challengers with brute force.
The Guatemalan government’s reactions to the killings come as no surprise to observers familiar with the country’s armed conflict. The Pérez Molina administration initially responded with statements denying military responsibility, equating the right of passage with the right to life, and claiming that protesters' decision to block roads was to blame for the violence that ensued. The responses reflect an ingrained pattern, rooted in the army’s counterinsurgency strategy, of obfuscating the truth about military repression and pointing the finger at victims for the human rights violations they suffered.
But aspects of the events that followed the massacre were less easily foretold. Pérez Molina shifted course, vowing that the military will no longer be deployed to respond to popular demonstrations. As evidence of its growing professionalization and leverage, the Public Prosecutor’s Office conducted a swift criminal investigation that culminated in the arrests of the commanding colonel and eight soldiers, all charged with the extrajudicial executions of six protestors. Similarly indicative of inroads in breaking a culture of impunity, the Guatemalan government and its military showed a commendable willingness to cooperate with the investigation, comply with its findings and permit civilian courts to try all nine suspects.
Protestors’ refusal to back down in the face of repression and the expanding support and mobilization of fellow Indigenous communities is equally striking and could not have been so easily foreseen. Their unflinching resolve is testimony to the importance communities place on addressing accumulated grievances, their impressive organization and the replacement of a culture of fear with a growing commitment to political activism.
Almost everyone we met during our week in Guatemala emphasized the need to prevent another Totonicapán. Much of the talk within the capital centered on finding nonviolent means of dialogue and ensuring that justice is served. Indigenous Guatemalans mostly concur. They remain as willing as ever to engage in peaceful exchange and are anxious to see whether the accused will be tried and convicted. Only then, we were told, might they sense that their lives matter.
But such rhetoric and gestures, while encouraging, do not begin to tackle the root causes of the clash. Several Indigenous activists wonder whether the killings could provide the necessary tailwind for Congress to approve a long-delayed rural development reform, a substantive first step in addressing the systematic economic exclusion that has plagued indigenous communities for centuries. As important as the need to bring concrete demands to the negotiating table with the state, leaders maintain that institutions must afford Indigenous Guatemalans’ genuine and sustained political access and voice if the “never again” sounded in the aftermath of the October 4 massacre is to become a reality.