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Guatemala: Police Kill Peasant With Tear Gas Canister

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

Land distribution patterns in Guatemala are of the most inequitable in Latin America and the World: 2% of the population owns 70% of all productive farmland, and most of the owners are not exploiting it.

Most of the Guatemalan poor are indigenous peoples living in rural areas and working in agriculture. They face an alarming 49% of malnourished children, growing signs of famine, and a lack of effective rural development policies, as the blog Gestión Territorial [es] points out.

Peasants preparing corn, by Alberto Arce (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Peasants preparing corn, by Alberto Arce (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Latifundio owners are dedicating lands that were once used to produce food for locals to biodiesel crops or sugar cane, due to the rising price for these crops and the low tech and low number of peasants they require for cultivation, as the blog El Polvorin [es] explains. This is risking the food security of thousands who live below the poverty line.

Indigenous families live on a very humble diet, as described by the blog Mayan Families:

Most of the indigenous families have tortillas as staple in their diet. Often when families do not have anything else to eat, they can always have tortillas with salt, but now, even that is threatened by the shortage of corn and the rising cost of what is available.

As a survival mechanism and due to the lack of job opportunities and public policies to assist them, many families are using small portions of the underused productive lands (where they were born and have always lived) to produce the food their families need for their survival: corn, beans and some vegetables.

This is increasing the number of land disputes, as owners want peasants out of their private property and often use the help of armed forces and violent means to evict them. Human casualties from these evictions are often under-reported by the media.

That was the case last week, when a peasant was murdered by security forces during a land eviction in Retalhuleu, near the Guatemalan Pacific coast. There, Sergio de León, a 31-year-old landless peasant, father of five, was killed when the police fired a tear gas canister directly to his heart. Independent video journalist and blogger Alberto Arce [es] filmed this eviction (WARNING: graphic images):

For an English-subtitled version of this video visit DotSub.

In the article “Yet another peasant killed in a land dispute” [es] Plaza Publica [es], a new digital media outlet unveiling corruption and defying the traditional self censorship of the Guatemalan media, describes the Sergio de León tragedy and the dilemmas the poor face in Guatemala to survive.

On one side peasants fight and risk their lives to defend the land that will provide food for their children, the land where they were born, where their parents were born, where their whole family has worked all their lives. On the other side poor and under-trained police and members of the army have to follow the orders to shoot and use violence against peasants – as poor as they are, from common origins -  as a way to keep their jobs, to feed their families. The third player in this conflict is a government unwilling to solve the growing number of land conflicts and inequality in land distribution.

Death is the solidarity of the current government, according to the Popular Front [es] blog:

El saldo ha sido un campesino ejecutado extrajudicialmente, tres campesinos más  con heridas, viviendas campesinas destruidas, además del trauma causado  especialmente a los niños quienes grabarán de por vida la respuesta que el  “gobierno de la solidaridad” les ha propinado. Fuerza armada ante la  demanda de tierra y de fuente de trabajo. Estado, al servicio del capital, en  contra de la clase campesina. Esa es la respuesta y esta es la realidad  histórica que se confirma. Nunca fue una política pública, una alternativa laboral, una solución negociada, ya no digamos una transformación de la  estructura agraria. Siempre fue la defensa del régimen de propiedad que nos ha  privado de todo y del modelo económico para continuar acumulando por  explotación, por desposesión y por exclusión de las grandes mayorías.

The balance is the extrajudicial execution of a peasant, three other peasants wounded, peasant's houses destroyed and a traumatic experience, especially for children. They will always remember the brutal response from the ‘solidarity government'. A state, in the service of capital, against the working class, the peasants. That was the response and that is our historical reality, confirmed. There has never been public policies or negotiation to solve the problem, alternative jobs, nor an integral transformation to the agricultural structure. It is always the system defending private property, a system which has deprived us from everything. It is always the defense of an economic model based on exploitation, deprivation and exclusion of the majority of the population.

Land conflicts and unequal distribution of wealth, which have increased due to economic crises in the last two decades, were core topics of the 1996 Peace Agreements. Poorly trained police serving the interest of the powerful is the other problem; De León's murder is not an isolated case. As different blogs mention, there have been several cases of excessive use of force while performing evictions, like in Nueva Linda [es], Salvador Xolhuitz [es], Bella Flor Community [es] and in other areas near the Polochic river, always with police assistance, always with human costs [es] on the peasants’ side.

In the official blog of ‘Global Visionaries', in the article “Landlessness, Hunger and Social Change in Guatemala” Camron McDonald describes an eviction which took place earlier this year, describing similar abuses from armed forces:

On March 15, 2011 more than 1,000 police and soldiers showed up in the Polochic Valley of Northern Guatemala.They were there to evict more than 3,000 Q’eqchi Maya Indians living on land claimed by a Guatemalan agribusiness firm.  Many of these families have been living on and tending to this land for thirty years.According to Danilo Valladares, writer for the Inter Press Service, security forces burnt or bulldozed the peasants’ shacks and destroyed their subsistence crops with machetes and tractors. One young man was killed in the scuffle and many others were injured. Now, close to 800 families have been left homeless and without access to the land they need to grow food to eat.

He also adds:

At this point, you might be asking, how did it come to this? Unfortunately, this tragedy is only one of hundreds of cases similar it that have taken place throughout Guatemala’s history. Repeated calls for land reform over the years have been met with little real change. Today, the wealthiest 5 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land. A lack of political will and a lack of clear laws regarding land tenure often lead to long drawn out disputes that usually end in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Meanwhile, landlessness has been identified as one of the leading causes of the wide-scale poverty and hunger that continues to plague the country.

The Chief of Police who gave the orders to evict Sergio de León was neither arrested nor sanctioned. The policeman who used a non lethal weapon (tear gas) with lethal purposes (shooting at the peasant's chest) was not arrested either. The community returned to the occupied land as they do not have anywhere else to go, but the police might return at anytime. And this is only one of approximately 1360 land disputes [es]. A different policy and a different way to solve land conflicts and eradicate hunger is not only necessary but urgent.

This post is part of our special coverage Indigenous Rights.

All the pictures and video in this article are by Alberto Arce, available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike license.

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