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Indigenous Farmers Hostage in Guatemala — Economically and Literally

May 2011


In this third blog of the Field Notes series, Grassroots’ Program Coordinator for Latin America Saulo Araújo analyzes the situation in which Guatemala’s indigenous Mayans are facing fear and despair in their own land. Saulo is currently visiting partners and ally organizations in Central America.   When they heard about the work opportunity in another town, the peasants didn’t hesitate. Within just a few days, they left home to work for Otto Salguero, a wealthy cattle rancher who reportedly had jobs for all of them. After endless hours on a bus, the men showed up to work – hard work – but together they slowly and steadily adjusted to it. Until one day, thugs invaded the farm, rounded up the group, and held them hostage for several hours.   The peasants who were held at gun point are but one example of tens of thousands of landless or land poor indigenous people who have been forced to leave the safety of their communities to work for somebody else. Without land to grow their own food and future at home, and with few opportunities to find work near home, many feel compelled to migrate to places as far as Mexico and the United States. There, without proper documentation, they are often easy targets for both drug lords and corrupt or ill-trained immigration police. Many are deciding, instead, to try to find work in Guatemala itself. And for some, including these peasant workers, that decision can mean death.   Caught in the crossfire   Guatemalans are living in a permanent state of fear because of the instability generated by the “war on drugs.” Drug lords and others are fighting over territories and “corridors” worth billions of dollars. Gangs of thugs from Mexico have reportedly branched out to Guatemala, and drug lords are infiltrating the political system and business community.   The thugs that kidnapped and eventually killed the innocent workers are part of the Los Zetas, a criminal band comprising members of Mexico’s Army Special Forces or “commandos” thathave defected. In Guatemala, Los Zetas recruited Guatemalan commandos or Kaibiles to join the organization linked to drug trafficking, extortion of migrant workers, and hundreds of killings. It is important to note that many of the commandos units of Mexico’s and Guatemala’s armies are trained by U.S. forces in Latin America and at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas). These Special Forces were (and still are) leading teams to destroy political insurgents in Latin America, mostly landless peasants and workers, students and urban workers.    On the other end, government drug enforcement policies are failing to provide security to low-income families in both rural and urban areas who are caught in the crossfire. Misconceived anti-terror laws and law enforcement actions stifle Guatemalans’ constitutional rights. While not bringing to justice those perpetrating human rights violations who occupy key positions in the Army, police and intelligence agencies, the use of brutal force is only creating more human rights problems in Guatemala.   How to kill two birds with one “shot”   For peasant organizations in Guatemala, it is clear that the war is not only on drugs – and, in fact, really not about drugs – but also on organized indigenous and peasant communities who are still fighting for their ancestral land and their resourec and human rights. Anti-terror laws that have been implemented to allegedly contain criminal bands such as the Los Zetas are being used against impoverished peasants and political dissidents. All nations in Central America have new anti-terror legislation – mirroring the U.S.A. Patriot Act – that don’t distinguish political dissidence and social conflict from terrorism.   The infamous “war on drugs,” sponsored by U.S. tax dollars through the Merida Plan favors, in many ways, the interests of powerful players who make a profit out of anything, including drugs, weapons, violence and indigenous peoples’ ancestral land (through land grabs). More violence sustains the global war economy. For example, Guatemala employs more personnel in private security forces than in the Army. In Honduras, the government passed a law that allows each citizen to own up to five guns.   According to reports here in Guatemala, the rancher, Otto Salguero, dealt drugs with Los Zetas in the past. Interestingly enough, newspaper articles have not presented any information about whether Salguero used drug money to purchase his farm and cattle. In the eyes of our partners and allies in Guatemala, that would make him a “narco,” yet another drug dealer who is grabbing land from real farmers.


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