Proper consultation with Indigenous Peoples, rural workers and civil society groups is the only way the Guatemalan authorities can prevent a deadly pattern of violence erupting at protests, Amnesty International said today.
The call follows this week’s meeting between President Otto Pérez Molina and Maya Ki’che’ Indigenous leaders from Totonicapán, 150km north-west of the capital, in the aftermath of seven people being shot dead and more than 30 injured when security forces responded to a protest along the Pan-American highway outside the town earlier this month.
An army colonel and eight soldiers are currently facing trial in Guatemala City on charges linked to the killings.
“While it’s a positive step that the investigation is proceeding into the tragic killings in Totonicapán, this tragedy could have been averted if the President’s dialogue with the region’s residents had happened earlier,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Guatemala Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Failing to carry out proper consultations with those affected by legislation and development projects is a recipe for disaster, and ongoing consultation is necessary to avoid social conflicts erupting into violence in the future.”
In April 2012, the United Nations General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee highlighted that Guatemala’s authorities were failing to consult with Indigenous Peoples – international obligations require the free, prior informed consent of Indigenous Peoples for any proposed changes that will affect them or their way of life.
Among the concerns raised by Totonicapán residents at the 4 October demonstration were rising electricity costs and disagreements about legislative reforms affecting teachers and the impact of constitutional reforms on Indigenous Peoples.
According to local NGO Udefegua, Totonicapán’s Indigenous leaders had requested a meeting with the President several times before the protest to voice their concerns.
When they finally met him on Wednesday, Indigenous leaders also demanded reparations for the families of those killed and injured following the security forces’ intervention in the protest.
In the aftermath of the 4 October killings, the Guatemalan authorities launched an investigation into what happened, and President Pérez Molina – who is a former military general – pledged the full cooperation of the armed forces.
A report by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office has since suggested that the soldiers who responded to the scene did so despite orders to stay away, and a Public Ministry report reveals ballistic evidence that soldiers opened fire on the protesters – contradicting earlier official statements.
Amnesty International urges the Guatemalan authorities to clarify why the military became involved in the response to the protest in the first place.
“Given the painful history of human rights violations by the military during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war, any militarization of the response to public protests is especially troubling – all the more so after the tragedy in Totonicapán,” said Elgueta.
“Any investigation must bring to light why soldiers were deployed to a public protest. All those found responsible for excessive use of force must be brought to justice, and full reparations must be granted to victims and their families.”