In Pursuit of Justice: a History of Conflict Between the Foreign Hydroelectric Industrial and Campesinos in the Guatemalan Town of BarillasBy: Gabriela Acosta, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
For over four years the tiny Guatemalan hamlet of Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango has struggled to halt the construction of hydroelectric projects that would negatively impact their community. Over the course of multiple administrations, the government of the Central American country has historically sided with large foreign corporations, citing major economic benefits as a consequence. However, the companies have neglected to respect the community’s right to free, prior and informed consent on the plausible impact of the hydroelectric project. In response, the indigenous community of Barillas rose up in protest, escalating on the occasion when towns people took control of a military outpost on May 1st. Consequently, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina declared that the area would be operating under a “state of siege” for thirty days.
The Conflict Begins
Conflict between a number of Hydroelectric companies and communities of the surrounding region began in 2007, when a different hydroelectric company, Hidralia Energía—a Spanish Corporation—attempted to initiate a project. As a response, 47,000 community members as well as their Community Development Council (COCODE) arose and overwhelmingly voted in opposition to mining activities and other mega projects, such as the hydroelectric plant, in the area, maintaining that it will have harmful consequences on the Cambalan river ecosystem. However, these concerns are not only limited to ecological impacts; Cambalan River is the site of enormous cultural importance as well. The river’s three central waterfalls serve as a communal bathing center, as a source of irrigation affect local terrain, for recreational use, and is especially important as a sacred ceremonial site. Should an energy company build a dam on the Cambalan river, the location for the Maya Q’anjob’al sacred rituals would be destroyed for future generations. At that time, community leaders made it clear that they would not sit by as a foreign company damaged this indispensable river.
Not long after this plan was halted, and despite community members’ vocal disapproval of hydroelectric projects, the Guatemalan government publicly backed Hidro Santa Cruz—a company that plans to build a hydroelectric dam in Posada Verde. When Hidro Santa Cruz began preliminary efforts to construct a damn on the Cambalan, community members made it clear that they wanted the company to cease operations in the area. However, the community’s cries failed to halt the project and the company began a campaign of intimidation to manipulate local campesinos. Community members cite vile acts such as personal intimidations, text and phone threats, legal persecution as well as the co-opting of activist leaders. Alberto Brunori, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala, stated, “We received several reports of harassment in Huehuetenango allegedly connected to the hydroelectric plant;” however, a proper investigation has yet to be conducted. Barillas community hard outs, however, suggested that the company has attempted bribing each of the nineteen surrounding communities with a promise of Q 30.000 per year of operation. When community members refused to give in, company representatives attempted to divide communities, targeting individual community leaders and offering to buy off their lands. Nevertheless, community members held firm, prompting a more aggressive business strategy. Hidro Santa Cruz resorted to legal action against community leaders for alleged defamation, and denounced individual leaders via local newspapers.
In 2009, in support of its community members, the local municipality proposed a law that would prevent any new construction on the Cambalan River. However, Hidro Santa Cruz took the local government to court and prevailed on the grounds that Guatemalan municipalities do not hold jurisdiction when it comes to dealing with construction projects. Despite the community’s persistent resistance, corporate officials took control of property along the river’s edge in June of 2011, setting up a fully reinforced enclosure and cutting off access to local farmlands and strategic roads. Company-hired security guards further heightened frustrations by resorting to intimidation and confrontation in attempts to provoke local campesinos to retaliate.
Peaceful protest were ignored for too long, and in early November 2011 leaders opted to take matters into their own hands by mobilizing a blockade to prevent Hidro Santa Cruz vehicles from accessing company property. Days after the initial demonstration, the action escalated as protesters partially destroyed company installations alongside the Cambalan River. While it appeared that peace had been reached in January of this year, when both community leaders and company representatives came together to reach an accord, this proved nothing but an illusion. Less than a week after the meetings, with no prior warning, workers with heavy machinery ignored agreements and broke ground on the construction site. Leaders believe that the company’s ostensible willingness to negotiate had been a ploy to momentarily mollify and distract them from successfully halting the construction projects. This act of betrayal accelerated tensions in the community, inciting a violent backlash against the foreign company which ultimately resulted in the detention of twenty-eights hydroelectric workers by local dissidents on March 9, 2012.
Tensions were further heightened last April when members of the community heard a sudden explosion near the installation. When they rushed to see what had occurred, community members found that a dog had crossed the company’s property line and had inadvertently detonated a landmine. The discovery of homemade explosives along Hidro Santa Cruz’ fence line intensified the campesinos’ outrage. Hidro Santa Cruz’ willingness to resort to extremely violent measures demonstrates that they would go to any length to rid themselves of those who will not comply with company demands. The incident was reported to the proper authorities and the community members once again demanded that the company withdraw from Barillas.
On May 1st, three community leaders and activists: Andrés Francisco Miguel; Pablo Antonio Pablo; and Esteban Bernabé, were violently ambushed as they made their return home to Posada Verde from the municipal center. Miguel’s body, punctuated by multiple rounds of bullets, was found along the side of a road, while his two companions escaped with serious injury. Over the course of the past several years, the three men have worked to prevent foreign hydroelectric companies from building a dam in their community. Informants found that the company had attempted to pressure Pablo, who had been repeatedly harassed and received death threats after he refused to sell his land.
Pablo and Bernabé suspected that Hidro Santa Cruz was behind the attack, identifying the attackers’ vehicles as similar to those frequently utilized by the company, and incited by the death of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel, the community banded together in angry protest. The public demonstration, backed by the mayor and local organizations, brought thousands of people into the streets—800 of whom stormed the local military outpost, injuring two soldiers, and seizing weaponry.
Declared State of Siege
Rather than address the increasingly oppressive and violent behavior of Hidro Santa Cruz, President Molina suggested that the recent frenzy was related to drug cartel activity that had spilled over from the neighboring Mexican border; thus, using this fabrication to justify a state of siege on the town of Barillas for thirty days. The militarization of Barillas, with more than 200 military and police troops dispatched to the town of Barillas for backup, has seen freedom of the press disappear as media personnel are pressured to halt all reports on the incipient conflict. Militarization has once again overtaken the town of Barillas, provoking memories of the Guatemalan armed conflict of 1960-1996, which left 250,000 victims in its wake. Rony Urizar, a representative of the Guatemalan Defense Ministry, stated that the objective of the militarization is not to protect company interests, as has been alluded, but to strengthen the strategic use of armed forces in the area. 
Despite Urizar’s affirmation that the government is not backing Hidro Santa Cruz, the military and police action suggests otherwise. Community members claim that company allies have created lists of dissidents and targeting them for detention. Since the siege began, 17 people have been detained for no reason beyond having attended the May 1st protest. Prisoners have been identified as some of the most vocal community members about their disapproval of the hydroelectric project. One such detainee, Saul Mendez, denounced company threats to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) located in Huehuetenango. President Molina, himself a retired general, refutes insinuations of the militarization of the region. Much to the contrary, Molina claims he is ensuring the “safety and tranquility” of Guatemalan citizens by applying a “mano dura”—or a firm hand—stance on organized crime. Molina may have to rethink his approach should he truly want to bring peace to the region.
On May 8th, 500 backers from over forty organizations that sponsor the Maya Waqib Kej National Coordination and Convergence agreements signed an open letter and petition demanding that the siege of Barillas be ended because it fails to address the root cause of the social conflict. In order to truly heal the wounds caused by the years of turmoil, the Guatemalan government will need to confront its marginalization of indigenous communities and be forced to look deeper into the true causes behind the nation’s bitter unrest.
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