Residents at ‘La Puya’ Celebrate Two Years of Peaceful Resistance

On Sunday, March 2, 2014, ‘La Puya’ — a nonviolent resistance movement against an unwanted gold mine near residents’ homes — celebrated its two-year anniversary.

Photo highlights from the anniversary can be seen here:

Since March 2 of 2012, participants in the movement have maintained a peaceful, 24-hour blockade at the entrance to the mine. Residents are concerned about the health and environmental impacts that the mine would have on their communities; they are also fighting for their right to be consulted about the project, as required under national and international law.

A banner welcomes participants to the two-year anniversary celebration at La Puya

A banner welcomes participants to the two-year anniversary celebration at La Puya

At the anniversary event, community members celebrated their successes in defending their territories, as well as the recent decision by Guatemalan company P&T Contratistas to permanently pull all of their heavy machinery and other mining equipment out of the site.

“We never thought when we started this movement that we would make it to the two-year mark. For us, it is truly a victory and an example for many others,” said Álvaro Sandoval, community leader at La Puya. “The most important thing is to protect the communities’ right to decide for ourselves whether we want this project or not. It’s not up to them [outsiders] to come and impose it.”

GHRC staff members presented La Puya with a banner of recognition as well as a letter of solidarity signed by 25 organizations and nearly 2,000 individuals from over 50 countries. The resistance also formally recognized GHRC, among other individuals and organizations, for accompanying the communities in their struggle and for condemning human rights violations against them at the international level.

Various awards given to the communities in resistance at La Puya

Various awards given to the communities in resistance at La Puya

The day began with a march to the resistance site, with an estimated 1,000 participants, including a student marching band and supporters from communities across Guatemala. Speakers included Angelica Choc, working for justice in El Estor, Yuri Melini of CALAS, Daniel Pascual of CUC, and Maya Alvarado of UNAMG. All shared words of hope, motivation, and solidarity with those of La Puya. Volunteer cooks prepared lunch for hundreds who stayed throughout the day, and an outdoor mass with live music was held in the afternoon.

During his speech, Daniel Pascual, from the Committee of Campesino Unity, congratulated La Puya on “the victory of the peaceful resistance,” but also issued a warning that “greater repression will come.” Participants recognized that their struggle is still ongoing, and reaffirmed their commitment to continuing the resistance until a long-term solution is found.

International Organizations Reiterate Concerns About Reduction of Attorney General’s Term; Violations of the Rule of Law in Guatemala

On February 11, GHRC and other international organizations criticized the recent ruling that cut short the Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term by seven months, and raised serious concerns about the state of rule of law in Guatemala. These concerns were reiterated today at a press conference in Guatemala City, and the organizations’ press release can be read (in Spanish) here.

The questionable ruling came from the Guatemalan Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest court, saying Paz y Paz should leave office in May instead of December 2014. The decision, which contradicts existing law, has been called a “coup d’etat” against one of Guatemala’s most important institutions.

Representatives from international organizations (including GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones, second from right) express concerns about the reduction of Attorney General Paz y Paz's term at a press conference in Guatemala City.

Representatives from international organizations (including GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones, second from right) express concerns about the reduction of Attorney General Paz y Paz’s term at a press conference in Guatemala City.

Many in Guatemalan civil society, along with international organizations, the US Embassy, and others, were quick to denounce the arbitrary ruling by the Court. Nevertheless, just a few days later, the Guatemalan Congress voted unanimously to implement the ruling and officially appoint the selection committee that will choose the next Attorney General. And while the entire process was wrought with irregularities, responding to political rather than legal considerations, there is now little recourse to challenge the ruling.

Claudia Paz y Paz was named Attorney General for a four year term in December 2010, and since taking office has achieved a series of impressive reforms within the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP), tackling corruption, organized crime, human rights violations from the past, femicide and human trafficking. In 2013, among other important cases, Paz y Paz oversaw the prosecution of General Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, charged with genocide and war crimes. It was the first time a former head of state was charged with genocide in domestic courts. Rios Montt was found guilty on both counts, but the verdict was overturned just 10 days later in another arbitrary decision by the same Constitutional Court.

Despite challenges at every turn, in just three years, the MP has been able to improve their investigative capacity, prosecute high level officials and notorious drug lords, and decrease overall levels impunity by almost 30 percent. While other institutions like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) have contributed greatly to these reforms, much credit goes to Paz y Paz herself for heading up a Prosecutor’s Office that was open to collaboration, focused on getting results, and, above all, committed to upholding the rule of law. For her work, Claudia Paz y Paz has been recognized and lauded by foreign governments and universities, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This battle over the Public Prosecutor’s office is a reflection of a larger power struggle unfolding in Guatemala; it is a battle over control of the State. The oligarchy, the business sector and the military have formed a (perhaps tenuous) alliance in order to co-opt institutions, maintain impunity for crimes of the past, and ensure a carte blanche for controversial industries like mining.

The break-down of rule of law in the case of the Attorney General is a bad sign of things to come: this year all of Guatemala’s Supreme Court and Appellate court judges leave office, and a new set of judges will be selected through special postulation commissions. As GHRC and partners have criticized, these commissions are not sufficiently transparent, and there is concern that they will respond to special interests rather than criteria based each candidate’s merits.

Each of these processes — the selection of a new Attorney General and judges — will have tremendous implications for human rights activists and community leaders, who are already vulnerable to threats and attacks.

Xinka Leader Speaks Out About Women’s Rights, Land Rights

Lorena Cabnal

Lorena Cabnal

In November 2013, Lorena Cabnal, accompanied by GHRC, spoke at a School of the America’s Watch Vigil about the Xinka community, their defense of land and women’s rights, and the recent impacts of remilitarization. Her story reflects both the historic struggles of the Xinka people, as well as the transformation of a group of women into a nationally recognized political force.

The Xinka people are not widely known outside Guatemala. And, until recently, the Xinka were not even recognized as an indigenous group in Guatemala; when Lorena was growing up, she didn’t know anything about that part of her heritage. Then, with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, and after extensive work by Xinka communities themselves, the Xinka people were officially recognized as a non-Mayan indigenous group.

Lorena herself settled in Santa Maria Xalapan, Jalapa, the largest Xinka community — often referred to simply as “the Mountain.” The promises of the Peace Accords, however, didn’t materialize in the Mountain. When the government claimed that Xalapan was not a target for social programs because “no indigenous people lived there,” (the government’s official count was 16,700), the women took the lead in organizing a community census. They showed that there were 85,000 Xinka people on the Mountain, and then organized marches to denounce racism and the “statistical ethnocide” that sought to minimize and disregard the population.

As Lorena and other women worked to promote Xinka identity, they also became increasingly aware of other problems affecting the community, such as persistent hunger and malnutrition, high rates of childbirth, and children dying of preventable diseases. This, too, they sought to address.

By 2003, the group had grown to include 377 women, yet only two knew how to read and write. They began literacy programs for women, participated in a feminist school led by the Women’s Sector, and began to talk about the roots of structural oppression: colonialism, patriarchy, racism, capitalism. Lorena recognized that western feminism wasn’t quite right for the Xinka people in Xalapan; over the last decade, she has developed a new model of community feminism that recognizes and incorporates the unique quotidian realities of Xinka women, their families, and their culture.

However, the women’s group — called AMISMAXAJ (the Association of Indigenous Women of Santa Maria Xalapan, Jalapa) — didn’t limit their work to cultural rights and education. As they identified increasingly complex problems, such as sexual violence and child trafficking, their organizing and advocacy began to affect interests of ancient patriarchal practices, local organized crime networks and military structures. And when they realized that their ancestral territories were being quietly taken out from under them in land concessions, they led massive marches that reached Guatemala City. They pitted their protest against the Guatemalan government as well as transnational mining interests.

Repression followed. Yet despite threats, police raids, the forced closure of their office, and Lorena’s displacement to Guatemala City for security reasons, the women of AMISMAXAJ continue to defend women, girls, and their territory from violence and destructive policies.

Here Lorena tells her story in more detail, and with it, the spiritual base that guides her and the Xinka women’s work to create a community free of violence, in which men and women live in harmony with each other and with their environment. She also shares what the international community can do to support AMISMAXAJ and women defenders at risk.

Lorena Cabnal joined GHRC on a speaking tour through Texas and Georgia in Nov. 2013, speaking at universities and community centers, and on local radio programs. The tour culminated at the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) Vigil in Ft. Benning, Georgia. This video is provided thanks to SOAW:

GHRC Director Recognized by the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area

GHRC’s Executive Director, Kelsey Alford-Jones, was honored yesterday with a Community Human Rights Award as part of the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area 2013 Annual Human Rights Awards Reception. The nomination was made by a GHRC delegation participant, who noted the “immense respect that everyone had for Kelsey and her dedication,” as well as her “success helping Guatemalans advocate their cases in front of the US and Guatemalan governments.”

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(R) Kelsey, left, and GHRC Board Member Yolanda Alcorta pause for a photo at the award reception.

The community award is presented each year to several DC-area individuals in celebration of the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognizes the outstanding work that individuals are making in improving human rights in their communities and around the world. Other community award winners are Caroline Jones, Executive Director at Doorways for Women and Families; Layli Miller-Muro, Executive Director at Tahirih Justice Center.

kelsey-award1

UNA-NCA Chair of the Human Rights Committee Sultana Ali (left) presented the award, along with Ambassador Donald T. Bill, President of the UNA-NCA (center).

“I’m truly honored by the award,” said Alford-Jones. “It is a testament to the dedication and commitment of the the entire GHRC team, which has worked tirelessly to support human rights defenders in Guatemala, and to raise awareness and build solidarity in the US.”

The event also included the presentation of awards and special honors to Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, who was presented with the Louis B. Sohn Award, and Dr. Sarah Degnan Kambou, President of the International Center for Research on Women, who received the Perdita Huston Award.

A Special UNA-NCA Award for the Use of Diplomacy to Advance Human Rights was also presented to F. Allen (Tex) Harris for his extraordinary achievements in saving lives through the use of diplomacy during the Argentine military dictatorship.

The event, held at the Cannon House Office Building, was hosted by Congressman Jim Moran and other elected officials serving as honorary chairs, including Senator Benjamin Cardin (MD), Congressman Jim Moran (VA-8), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13), Congressman Chris Van Hollen (MD-8), Congressman Sam Farr (CA-20), and Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-2).

Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala Recognizes Defenders

On December 11, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala presented its annual award, the Orden Juan José Gerardi, to three community activists: anti-mining activist Yolanda Oquelí; the indigenous mayor of Nebaj, Ana Laynez Herrera; and Rodolfo Cardenal Quezada Toruño (posthumously).

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The award is given out each year as part of a commemoration of Human Rights Day. It honors Juan José Gerardi, a Guatemalan Roman Catholic Bishop and human rights defender, and since 2004, has recognized individuals or organizations who have made significant contributions to Guatemalan society through work in human rights, historic memory, or justice.

Yolanda Oquelí Veliz

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Yolanda speaking at the award ceremony

Yolanda Oquelí Veliz is from the community of San Pedro Ayampuc and is the leader of the Frente Norte del Área Metropolitana (FRENAM), a peaceful movement to defend indigenous land from the expansion of mining activity. As a result of her leadership, Yolanda was a victim of an assassination attempt on June 13, 2012; the gunman was never arrested. After recovering, Yolanda expressed that she is more committed than ever to the movement.

Since March of 2012, the communities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc  have maintained a blockade at the entrance to the El Tambor gold mine (commonly referred to as “La Puya”).

“It has been 21 months of resistance,” said Yolanda, “And it is not easy dealing with the repression of the mining companies. But it hurts more when we are repressed by our own government, which responds with illegal evictions and armed forces.”

Yolanda expressed gratitude for the acknowledgement on behalf of all of the women in La Puya, and all those involved in the resistance effort. “We are not against development or progress,” she clarified, “provided it is on equal terms.”

GHRC has worked to support the peaceful resistance at La Puya, and honored the communities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc as recipients of the first Alice Zachmann Human Rights Award in September of 2012.

Ana Laynez Herrera

Since 2008, Ana  Laynez Herrera has been part of the indigenous mayor’s office, made up of 17 men and 3 women, as well as the municipality’s city council. Ana was forced to flee her home in Vitzal, Nebaj in 1980 due to the internal armed conflict, and was not able to return to Nebaj until 1999.

During recent years, Ana has had an important voice in the search for justice for past crimes, especially regarding efforts to enforce the sentence handed down on May 10, 2013 in the case of the Ixil genocide.

“I’m receiving this award on behalf of all of the Ixil women, for all of those who presented their testimonies in court,” Ana said.

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño

Rodolfo Cardenal Quezada Toruño was the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Guatemala; in 2003, he was named Cardinal by Pope Juan Pablo II, making him the second Cardinal of the Catholic Church in Guatemalan history.

Rodolfo played a large role in Guatemala’s peace negotiations, serving as President of the National Commission of reconciliation (1987-1993) and Chairman of the Assembly of the Civil society in 1994. In 1990, he was appointed as the official conciliator between the government and the guerrillas of the National Revolutionary Unit.

As Archbishop, Rodolfo also assumed a leadership role in the rejection of open-pit mining in the country, and showed strong support for the investigation of the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi.

GHRC Kicks Off November Speaking Tour with Lorena Cabnal

This week, GHRC kicked off our November Speaking Tour with Lorena Cabnal — an indigenous Xinka woman and community feminist — in Houston, Texas. After earning her degree in Community Social Psychology, Lorena co-founded the Association of Indigenous Women of Santa María Xalapán (AMISMAXAJ) in 2003.

GHRC-speaking-tour

Lorena Cabnal and GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones with Father Gerry, of Maryknoll house, and members of the RPDG and ADOGUAH — co-sponsors of a great event on Monday evening!

At out first event, Lorena discussed the status of Xinka women in Guatemala, as well as her experiences as a community activist. She described seeing a great amount of violence against women, young girls getting pregnant at the ages of 12 or 13, and women with up to 15 children. There were also issues with human trafficking, with young girls being sold into prostitution or into illegal international adoptions.

As Lorena and other members of AMISMAXAJ began to denounce these attacks against women, they also organized against oil extraction on their ancestral lands. The group discovered that there were 31 licenses for exploration for extraction projects in the Jalapa region, and warned the indigenous government that oil and mining projects “will become a serious problem.”

Lorena also explained what she called a “statistical ethnocide” against the Xinka people — the fact that the Xinka were not recognized as an ethnic group until the peace accords were signed in 1996, and that the Guatemalan government estimate of the Xinka population was much lower than a self-organized census found. Continue reading

From Shared Stories, Solidarity

I just got back from Guatemala, and wanted to share my experience while I was there.

As an intern, I had the opportunity to attend GHRC’s August delegation to Guatemala, titled Women in Resistance. In addition to meeting with different human rights organizations and the U.S. Embassy, we were fortunate enough to listen to the testimony of Ixil genocide survivors. Before beginning their testimony, they admitted that repeating their stories to us would be emotionally draining. Yet they understood that we were there to foster solidarity, and we assured them that we would share their experiences with our contacts back in the U.S.

After three hours of listening to the five women speak about their experiences during the conflict, the room fell silent. None of the delegates knew how to respond to what we had just heard. I personally could not imagine the suffering that these women expressed to us: horrific details of rape; soldiers burning everything they owned; families fleeing to the mountains, just to watch their own children die from starvation. I had read similar stories through my GHRC internship. However, as I listened to these women weep and scream while recounting their experiences, I understood the raw reality of the genocide and witnessed the strength of these women for surviving to tell their stories.

Ixil survivor with poster

As we absorbed what we had just heard, Kelsey, GHRC Director, broke the silence by presenting the survivors with a poster. The poster displayed comments posted by our supporters to GHRC’s Facebook page. The comments demonstrated the vast international support and solidarity with all victims of the Guatemalan genocide. The women in turn expressed their gratitude that they are not alone in the fight to achieve justice.

From Mara Goldberg, Intern, GHRC/USA

GHRC visits Qanjobal community in Omaha, NE

On August 9th and 10th, I traveled to Omaha, NE, and had the honor to get to know the Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI). Juana Marcos, Executive Director of CMPI, was a recipient this year of GHRC’s Voiceless Speak Fund. She and her husband, Luis Marcos had invited me to participate in the first annual Omaha Celebration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The celebration included religious and spiritual observance, cultural activities, and a conference on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As I waited for the activities to begin on Friday evening, I chatted with Ricardo Ariza of the Creighton University Multicultural Center and watched several dozen teenagers file shyly into the room. They were joined by members of the local Qanjobal community.

Nebraskan Youth experience Mayan Ceremony

Qanjobal is one of the 22 Mayan linguistic groups in Guatemala, which is concentrated in the north western department of Huehuetenango. I was surprised to find such vibrant Qanjobal culture in Omaha of all places, and delighted every time I heard children switching seamlessly between speaking English, Spanish and Qanjobal.

Brothers Juanatano and Daniel Caño display elements of Mayan Ceremony

Brothers Juanatano and Daniel Caño display elements of Mayan Ceremony

Mayan spiritual guides had been invited from Guatemala to perform a ceremony and explain its significance. Professor Daniel Caño, who teaches at Rafael Landivar University in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, laid out some of the elements used in the ceremony to shared with us why they are used.

Overall, he said, the ceremony is a way to thank the earth for what we receive from her. So, many of the elements are used because they are pleasing such as sugar, flowers, cigars, and an incense made out of pine sap. Candles of six colors are also burnt, each representing a different element. The six directions are also an essential part of the ceremony—north, south, east, west, up and down.

Dr. Rudi Mitchell explains the Omaha people's Cedar Ceremony

Dr. Rudi Mitchell explains the Omaha people’s Cedar Ceremony

As the four spiritual leaders prepared the elements for the ceremony, Dr. Rudi Mitchell,elder in the Omaha tribe, performed a cedar ceremony, and told us about its significance for many tribes around North America.  Then, as day fell, the Mayan ceremony began. 

Mayan spiritual leaders, Professor Caño explained, are also called day counters in Qanjobal, as they are keepers of the Mayan calendar. Over the next two ours, while the candles and other materials burned, the four leaders listed the 260 days of the lunar calendar.  

Mayan Spritual Leaders prepare materials for the Ceremony

Mayan Spritual Leaders prepare materials for the Ceremony

The next morning, the conference began. Keynote speaker, Bishop Ramazzini discussed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPS), as well as other pieces of international law such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. As he pointed out, ILO 169, which Guatemala has signed, is the most binding and complete legal mechanism for upholding indigenous rights.

Both ILO 169 and DRIPS uphold indigenous people’s right to control the lands they the traditionally occupied as well as the natural resources contained in those lands. This right is routinely violated in Guatemala as indigenous communities are evicted or minerals or oil are taken from beneath them without their permission.

Bishop Ramazzini

Bishop Ramazzini

Bishop Ramazzini also discussed how the right to equal treatment is not upheld for indigenous communities in Guatemala, especially when it comes to basic services. He pointed out that in Huehuetenango, which has one million inhabitants, there is only one public hospital, and it doesn’t have the technology to provide basic services like ultrasounds.

Bishop Ramazzini lamented that when he and others in the Catholic Church speak out against this rampant racism, they are accused of being terrorists. His prescription for change was to place more indigenous Guatemalans in positions of power to gain more political clout and push for greater respect for indigenous rights.

I also had a chance to speak about UN-DRIPS and the way that GHRC’s work supports the rights enumerated in the declaration. Obviously, our work around access to land and natural resources reflects the rights I outlined above. However, our work against militarization is also backed by the declaration, as it calls for the demilitarization of indigenous lands. I also had the opportunity to describe the strategies that GHRC uses to carry out our work to support human rights and invite the audience to join us.

KeJ on Panel

On the panel with me were representatives of the Omaha tribe who outlined the concerns faced by indigenous peoples in the United States, including poverty, contamination of their water supplies and dislocation. Strikingly, they could have been describing the situation faced by Mayans in Guatemala.

The second day of the celebration closed with an evening of cultural activities including marimba music and dance. Touchingly, a group of young men and women performed a dance they had choreographed themselves to honor the four cardinal directions. Luis confided to me later, that these same youth not long ago had been ashamed of their identity as Maya because of the discrimination they faced. It was heartwarming to see them now, celebrating their culture and sharing with their community.

Written by Kathryn Johnson

Press release: La Puya in Nevada

June 26, 2013

Virginia City, NV— This Thursday, groups from Nevada and Guatemala will come together to highlight the damage that mining threatens to cause in both places.

The Comstock Residents Association, in partnership with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Great Basin Resource Watch, and the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, will host Alvaro Sandoval Palencia, a representative from “La Puya” Guatemala. Together they will picket the annual shareholder’s meetings of Comstock Mining Incorporated (CMI) to highlight unethical mining practices carried out by CMI and related companies.

La Puya is a group of community activists from San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc, Guatemala, who have peacefully blocked the road which passes through their communities leading to the site of the proposed “El Tambor” mine. El Tambor is owned by a subsidiary of the Nevada based company, Kappes, Cassiday and Associates.

Continue reading

We won’t let threats stop our work!

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The attack on GHRC a couple of weeks ago was a sharp reminder of what a dangerous time this is for human rights defenders in Guatemala. The messages of hate and violence posted on our facebook page were echos of the slander and threats which our partners have suffered for months and even years.

Can you make a donation today to help us continue our work to protect human rights defenders?

In response to the attack, we received over 100 posts on our wall in facebook expressing support for our work and for the survivors of genocide in Guatemala. These words, as well as numerous emails and phone calls, were an inspiring reminder of the strong and resilient network of activists we rely on. The messages we received were so heartwarming that I wanted to share some of them with you.

  “We stand in solidarity with the people of Guatemala, the brave judges and witnesses at the genocide trial and the dedicated human rights advocates at GHRC. God bless you and may your (and our) dream of human rights for all prevail!”

Continue reading