The System of Ancestral Indigenous Authorities

By Lucía Escobar


Guatemala is a multicultural country that has different types of civil and community organizations. I will attempt to outline a few authorities that still continue to be operative in the country today.

The Alcaldías Indígenas (“indigenous councils”) are institutions that were born in the Colony when the “Indian pueblos” were formed and principales (people with lineage) were chosen to dispense justice, collect taxes for the Crown, and make the new Spanish laws and regulations public.

The isolation of the villages and the neglect of the State contributed to the fact that this structure of social and community service was necessary and effective for hundreds of years; absorbing, changing, and even disappearing according to the history of each of the country’s indigenous peoples.

This system of responsibilities continues to function in departments such as Sololá, Totonicapán, and Quiché.

For example, in Quiché, the Alcaldía Indígena remains active and the positions are named in an open assembly in each canton. From this comes a board of directors or senior counsel. The positions are usually destined for older people with certain spiritual qualities, previously proven service in the community, and a talent for mediation or dialogue. There is also the Consejo de la Alcaldía Indígena (“counsel of the indigenous council”), head of the brotherhood (who guard the community’s treasures and religious images) and of the Principales (guardians of the documents and titles of ancient properties).

In Totonicapán each year, an average of a thousand people take on the different positions in their communities that are necessary to maintain such a solid work structure, which include the positions of communal mayor, vice mayor, court clerk, secretary, treasurer, forest rangers, plumber, custodians, bathroom maintenance, and heads of water and health committees; this is a network that does a better job than even the State of meeting the needs of the population, and which furthermore acts without a budget. This work is called “cashcol”, a long-suffering service for which some people save in advance, because when the moment arrives they must leave their jobs to serve the village. They resolve cases including intrafamily violence and thefts; they record deaths or births; they solidify health and education projects. In addition, they take care of issues related to cemeteries, roads, and confluences. They also help with maintaining the one thousand two hundred springs that enrich the water flow of the Chixoy, Motagua, Samalá, and Nahualate rivers and feed into the entire basin of Lake Atitlán. Moreover, Totonicapán is the only department in which water is a community business, because it is piped and distributed by the people themselves. And it is able to operate thanks to this efficient system of authorities.


Table of the system of responsibilities of the indigenous authorities


Authorities elected by the community

Ajpop: highest authority of the village government, usually three people: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Ajpop

Ajnim winaq: Counsel made up of three ex ajpop or principales

Ajk’amal b’e: Authorities with different functions, such as the community mayor or the town crier who runs through the streets to give warnings

Ajtz´ib´: person who writes, or a secretary

Ajchajal: person who collects money


Authorities by vocation (not elected)

Ajchinimtal y Chuchuxel: elderly guides

Ajch’ut Tat: Family authorities, such as grandparents and parents

Ajkun: Health authorities specialized in natural medicine

Aj Iyom: Midwife

Ajq’ijab’: Timekeepers and those in charge of spirituality


The first authority that existed many years ago was La Cofradía (qa´tba´l tzij, “the brotherhood”), which was made up of different people with distinct abilities.


(With information from Nicolás and Don Miguel Pilo and the book Una visión global del Sistema Jurídico Maya by the Defensoría Indígena Wajxaqib’ No’j).