Guatemala: assassination, state of siege in conflict over hydro-dam

Petitioned by local leaders, Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina lifted the state of siege May 18 on the remote Maya village of Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, imposed there after disturbances that left one person dead on May 1. Residents are still demanding the release of 17 arrested in connection with the unrest. Authorities say a gang of some 200, armed with machetes and guns, overran a local army outpost—and charged that they were led by members of the notorious Mexican narco-paramilitary network, Los Zetas. Local residents, represented by the Maya Waqib Kej National Coordination and Convergence, say the group was protesting the killing of a local community leader that day, Andrés Francisco Miguel, a leading opponent of a hydroelectric dam planned for the area. Villagers believe he was killed by security guards working for Hidro Santa Cruz, the Spanish-backed company building the local hydro-dam, and that the killers were being protected in the army outpost. Perez Molina visited Santa Cruz Barillas in the aftermath of the confrontation, and said human rights would be respected but that he would not tolerate residents taking the law into their own hands. Hundreds of army and National Police troops have been mobilized to the village.

Spanish firm Hidralia Energia is overseeing construction of the Canbalam I hydro dam over the protests of all the 26 aldeas (hamlets) that use the river, who voted in a community consultation to reject the project in 2007. The local Community Development Council (COCODE) in October again issued a statement expressing their opposition to the project. Tensions in the area have escalated as the company has prepared to being construction at the site on the Río Canbalam (a tributary of the Ixcán, which flows north into the Lacantún, across the border in Chiapas, Mexico.) (Siglo21, Guatemala, May 19; Prensa Libre, Guatemala, May 13; Guatemala Human Rights Update, May 5; EFE, Global Voices, May 8; BBC News, InSight Crime, May 3)

The conflict revives grim memories of the genocide in Guatemala's Maya Highlands in the 1980s. On May 18, a mass grave was exhumed in Cobán, Alta Verapaz department, containing the remains of dozens of children. Specialists from the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation continue to recover the remains of at least 178 people—including 45 children—who were killed sometime between 1980 and 1985. Articles of clothing retrieved from the grave match indigenous garb worn in Rabinal village, Baja Verapaz. (El Periodico, Guatemala, May 18)

See our last posts on Guatemala, Central America and regional struggles for water.

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