Repression against CODECA: The criminalization of organization

By Leiria Vay —

Comunicadora social de CODECA

EM: See the Editorial Note for context.

Threats and murder sow terror and uncertainty, and in Guatemala, these don’t just belong to the past, but are current practices that every day leave more victims in Guatemala. The elite, with the participation or tacit approval of government authorities, repress those who try to raise their voices, organize themselves, and say, ‘Enough of these injustices, we demand our rights.’

CODECA (Committee for Campesino Development) appeared in 1992 to demand the right to land and fair wages on the plantations of Guatemala’s southern coast. Today, after 23 years defending peoples’ rights, CODECA continues to fight for land and fair wages, and has also joined the struggle for gender equality, youth development and activism, indigenous rights, and the disgracefully controversial struggle for affordable basic services, like water, health, and electricity.

CODECA works based in organization, sociopolitical education, and large- and local-scale mobilization. CODECA has organizations in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments, and works in 15 microregions that are constantly coordinating and developing together.

As a consequence of our various struggles, the campaign of persecution and criminalization against CODECA has recently intensified. This campaign seeks principally to weaken our organization and obfuscate the truth so that the pillagin of our natural resources and the violations of citizens’ rights can continue.

When we published a report, available on our website, about plantation working conditions that shows that today in Guatemala tens of thousands of families live in conditions of virtual slavery, CACIF (Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations) and the Association of Agribusiness (Cámara de Agro) labeled CODECA as against development and private investment. Our 117 local volunteer investigators all experienced some kind of persecution for their investigation into this reality. Of those 117, two were murdered. They were both warned by telephone to drop the ‘nonsense.’ Both were active local CODECA leaders. Enrique was hung near his house in Huehuetenango. Héctor’s throat was cut in front of his family. Entremundos withheld last names for security.

‘When we published a report that shows that thousands of families live in conditions of virtual slavery on plantations today in Guatemala, CACIF and the Association of Agribusiness labeled CODECA as anti-development and private investment.’

In the face of the privatization of electricity, many member and non-member communities have declared themselves ‘in resistance,’ demanding the nationalization of electricity so they won’t have to pay exorbitant amounts to foreign companies or the Guatemalan oligarchy for electricity, a fundamental right. In response to this widespread community struggle, CODECA has publicly called on the government to nationalize the sector. The state’s response has been unsubstantiated accusations and public threats from the President, the Vice President, and the Interior Ministry announcing that they will issue arrest warrants for CODECA’s leadership, adding to the defamation campaign led by the electricity distributor Energuate, majority-owned by British private equity firm Actis Capital.

For CODECA’s support of community resistance that demands the right to affordable electricity, as well as the struggle for land and fair wages in rural Guatemala, in 2014 alone, three of our members were murdered, 68 injured or assaulted, 44 incarcerated, and seven kidnapped, while hundreds received threats. The persecution has not only involved the state’s efforts to bring charges against our human rights defenders, but conspiracy with private agents who kidnap, assault, and threaten with death our activists who are later jailed.

In March, 2014, an armed group, acting expressly in the interests of Energuate/Actis, attacked CODECA members who were meeting local activists in Cayuga, Morales Izabal. After assaulting some of those present, including women, children, and elderly people, the armed men kidnapped three activists, beat them, and left them with the police, who jailed them for three months. These armed men continue to intimidate organized communities, saying that if they continue their activism, they will be jailed or killed.

In June, 2014, private Energuate security agents that disguised themselves as local authorities kidnapped CODECA leaders (the national coordinator, the vice president, and a local activist) for four hours in Chiantla, Huehuetenango, and then handed them over to the police, who instead of liberating them incarcerated them. These activists were charged with ‘attacks against the internal security of the nation’ and ‘special fraud.’ The judge ignored habeas corpus, despite the fact that there was no evidence of any crime having been committed. Currently the three are under supervised release, which limits their right to organize, their political rights, and even their right to travel outside of their department, until their next hearing in Febuary, 2016.

On August 15, 2014, part of a contingent of over 1,000 police officers fired into a demonstration outside of Semococh, Alta Verapaz, that was blocking the road the police were taking after arresting three people they sought for connections with CODECA. They murdered three community activists and arrested 22 more. 65 were injured. Those arrested are also under supervised release and have charges pending.

In the face of this onslaught of persecution and criminalization against human rights activists, CODECA has been developing mechanisms of protection and community self-defense for those who defend their communites’ rights.

We’ve organized a network of community activists for protection and self-defense. This network began to coalesce in 2013 and as grown through 2014. Its goal is to protect local leaders by training communities to respond to repression. In 2014, we formalized the work of 11 focial points or microregions that had been formulating assessments of their strengths, weaknesses, threats, and allies. We developed and circulated a guide for community activists based in our experience and created through broad local participation. The guide is a tool to identify the roles of a human rights activist and precautionary self-defense measures.  We also hold trainings in human rights promotion to develop local capacities and educate communities about the national and international laws that support and theoretically protect our rights and activism. We focus on the Labor Code and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

CODECA has also joined other national networks of organizations that denounce respression of activism. These efforts have created a growing consciousness about such cases, and prompted various national and international organizations to investigate them, visit incarcerated activists, and thereby generate pressure on the Guatemalan government to slow down its persecutions.

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    […] MLP’s candidates offer a unique blend of experience, including women with a strong background in politically driven movements. Leading the party’s electoral list for Congress is Blanca Ajtun, a Mayan woman and renowned human rights activist. She served as vice-president of CODECA, a position that exposed her to threats and imprisonment – activists for the organisation have long faced repression, intimidation and worse. […]

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