In a historic decision this May, Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice sentenced former dictator General Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for the genocidal massacres of indigenous people in the 1980s. Many Guatemalans hoped that the judicial process against the top criminals of the country’s “dirty war” would finally bring justice—but ten days after the decision, the Constitutional Court reversed the judgment.
While the Guatemalan people protest this violation of the rule of law, the processes of genocide initiated 30 years ago by Ríos Montt’s massacres continue today by other means.
In the last decade, the expansion of oil palm plantations and sugarcane production for ethanol in northern Guatemala has displaced hundreds of Maya-Q´eqchi´ peasant families, increasing poverty, hunger, unemployment and landlessness in the region, according to a new Food First report by Alberto Alfonso-Fradejas, “Sons and Daughters of the Earth: Indigenous Communities and Land Grabs in Guatemala.”
There is a major contradiction here: at the same time that the former General Ríos Montt is convicted for genocide, the Guatemalan government allows the oligarchy, allied with extractive industries, to displace entire populations without concern for the human cost. In many cases, these land grabs result in the murder and imprisonment of rural people who resist the assault.
Genocide against the indigenous peasant population in Guatemala no longer has the face of a military dictatorship supported by the United States. Now it is the corporations, the oligarchy and the World Bank who push peasants off their lands.
In today’s Guatemala, land and resource control is increasingly in the hands of a small oligarchy of powerful families allied with agri-food companies. At the center of this power are fourteen families who control the country’s sugarcane-producing companies (AZAZGUA); five companies controlling the national production of ethanol; eight families that control the production of palm oil (GREPALMA); and members of the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF).
Together these powerbrokers are accumulating land and wealth with the support of investment from international institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE). The convergence of multiple global crises—finance, energy, food and environment—has directed corporate investment into land-based resources such as agrofuels, minerals, pasture and food. The situation in Guatemala is extremely violent, part of a global trend where agrarian, financial and industrial interests are grabbing control of peasant lands and resources.
Can land grabs be considered genocide? In many ways, land grabbing is a new form of genocide. Ricardo Falla’s study “What Do You Mean There Was No Genocide?” analyzes the definition of genocide and its characteristics. According to Falla, of the five acts that define genocide, two were most prominent in Guatemala: “the massacre of the members of a group,” and “the intentional subjection of a group to living conditions which will lead to their total or partial physical destruction.”
The first genocide was against the Ixil peoples during the reign of Ríos Montt. The second genocide is enacted today through the privation of the Q´eqchi´ peoples’ means of survival through land grabs. Hundreds of families have been displaced. They do not have land on which to produce food or live, and they are denied their cultural and community identity. These conditions undermine their ability to survive, and lead to their displacement, and in many cases death.
The historic genocide trial this May came about through the peoples’ long struggle to defend their rights. The Ríos Montt conviction is a condemnation of impunity. The oligarchy did everything possible to impede the trial while continuing to displace the indigenous peasant population with the support of international investment and a legal system that favors land grabbing to the detriment of the people.
On May 20, the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction, with two of the five judges opposing the decision. Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence stated, “No legal decision is inconsequential, even if it is revoked.” The Inter-American Court of Justice issued a statement criticizing the verdict for violating international obligations assumed by the state and preventing the people from seeking justice. Multiple organizations and authorities have spoken out against the court’s decision, arguing that it overstepped its bounds, violated legal provisions, and endorsed the corrupt mechanisms upon which impunity is built in Guatemala. The decision bolsters evidence that Guatemala’s top court lacks political independence and is tied to the country’s economic and ruling elite.
On May 24, thousands of people demonstrated and delivered a letter with more than a thousand signatures to the Court demanding that the decision be reversed. In Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru, thousands more marched in solidarity to the Guatemala embassy demanding justice.
If we fail to judge and condemn the massacres committed thirty years ago, what hope is there for the Mayan Q’eqchi’, Xinka, Mam, Kaqchikel and other indigenous peoples currently being displaced and massacred by extractive corporations with the support of the state and international institutions? The people continue to courageously resist and defend their lives, lands and identities. How shall we express our solidarity?
Leonor Hurtado is a fellow at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. A native of Guatemala, she has spent decades defending human rights and indigenous rights, and supporting indigenous resistance to the expansion of extractive industries.