STATE LOOTING OF INDIGENOUS LAND: The case of Tres Cruces in Cobán, Alta Verapaz
By César Bol
Between the years 1850 and 1860 the first Germans arrived in Guatemala to seek their fortune. Around they year 1863, the first German, a man by the name of Sapper, settled in Cobán, Alta Verapaz. Three years later he would begin coffee farming. The first records of the Sapper family in Verapaz, according to Reverend Ricardo Terga Cintron de Berrios’ book, Almas Gemelas, date back to the year 1880.
In the year 1894, Ricardo Sapper bought three estate plots, which he joined together to form the Finca Tres Cruces estate, where coffee was the main crop. The native families and those that had settled in the area became voluntary workers or tenant farmers for the Sapper family. The name of Tres Cruces originated from the fact that within the land of the estate a place known by that name was the main resting spot for travelers bringing coffee to export at the rainy port in Panzós, Alta Verapaz.
During the Second World War, many Germans were expelled from Guatemala, leaving many estates abandoned. For this reason, young tenant farmers remained settled within the Tres Cruces estate, living in accordance to their culture and customs. In the year 1993, the lawyer Edgar Raúl Pacay Yalibath presented himself to the farmers, claiming to be the legal representative of the Sapper family, with an order from a great-grandson of Ricardo Sapper by the name of Joaquín Christian Sapper Grosse. He sought to order the removal of the families living there, accusing them of being invaders. With time, the former tenant farmers discovered that in the order, Joaquín’s information and ID number had been falsified. Said lawyer passed away in 2020. It’s important to mention that Mr. Edgar Raul Pacay Yalibath was a Magistrate on the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, in the year 2004, the National Land Fund FONTIERRAS adjudicated the Tres Cruces estate to some of its own workers, one of them who worked as an adjudicator of land, as well as other beneficiaries, lawyers, and employees of other government authorities from CAMINOS, the Ministry of Communication, Infrastructure and Housing. They used an idle farmland law to justify their actions. However, the law mentions that “idle land will be adjudicated to groups of peasants who have historically possessed said land and worked on it.” The families that benefited from this adjudication have never held the Tres Cruces estate and come from other Departments, and as if that weren’t enough, they have prosecuted the tenant farmers’ families, accusing them of being invaders.
The most recent actions committed by these people from FONTIERRAS has been to corner the farmers with authority. A deal was reached through the Public Ministry to distribute small fractions of land to the families while those from FONTIERRAS would keep the majority. This process has been temporarily suspended. Those who aren’t in agreement will be declared invaders, for which they can be imprisoned for many years, though the reality is the other way around; the supposed owners have, in cahoots with the Public Ministry, changed the story. The farmers have tried to contact the Sapper family but have not been successful.
Author’s note: This article was written with the support of the testimony of tenant families.