Indigenous communities bring Guatemala to a standstill: Thousands mobilize to protest against Guatemalan congress’s refusal to recognize indigenous justice

by February 23, 2017

Indigenous communities across Guatemala have brought the country to a standstill for the second day in a row. Blockading major crossroads and highways, the nationwide peaceful demonstrations are protesting against the Guatemalan congress’s rejection of a constitutional reform that would legally recognize indigenous justice as part of the country’s judicial system.

Photo: Anna Watts

An estimated 60 percent, or more than 6 million inhabitants, make up Guatemala’s population (IWGIA). Yet indigenous systems of justice, wherein local authorities rule on community issues, have been looked down upon by a country that continues to hugely discriminate against its majority indigenous population. The reforms face opposition from conservatives and major businesses that control most of Guatemala’s land and economy. Although many of these business interests campaigned against the reforms under the guise of fearing “legal confusion,” indigenous activists and leaders at the protests describe the opposition as deriving from a fear of losing any of their elite power to those who have been oppressed and exploited for centuries--Indigenous Peoples.

Protesters gathered at Los Encuentros yesterday. Photo: Anna Watts

At Los Encuentros, one of the most important crossroads between major cities located along the Pan-American Highway, thousands of indigenous people of the Sololá region gathered to participate in the blockades.

Photo: Anna Watts

Carrying handmade signs and led by their respective indigenous leaders, community groups unloaded from packed cargo trucks and chicken buses, carrying ready-made lunches to last through a full day of protesting.

Protesters arrive at Los Encuentros in large groups, packed into cargo trucks and chicken buses, carrying handmade signs and lunches for the full-day blockade. Photo: Anna Watts

Cargo trucks and chicken buses line the Pan-American Highway as drivers participate in the protests, also providing free transport between Sololá and blockade sites at the beginning and end of each day of demonstrations. Photo: Anna Watts

Announcements asked demonstrators to remain in their chosen spot without moving from the site for meals.

Photo: Anna Watts

Photo: Anna Watts

By 8:30 am, every tienda, comedor, and tortilla stand had been closed down and locked up, a rare sight for the ever-bustling highway hub.

The deserted city of Sololá, all shops and market stalls empty and shut due to the nationwide protests. Photo: Anna Watts

The majority indigenous city of Sololá was deserted; not a car in sight nor shop windows open.

Photo: Anna Watts

Pick-up trucks and makeshift blockades of boulders and large tree branches cut off traffic between smaller communities surrounding Lake Atitlán.

A makeshift blockade outside of San Jorge La Laguna, preventing travel to the touristed town of Panajachel and other lakeside indigenous communities around Lake Atitlán. Photo: Anna Watts

Protesters organized and coordinated solely by means of meetings and phone calls between indigenous community leaders. Use of internet or social media to communicate and gain protest support was entirely avoided out of fear of vulnerability and tracking by police and those opposing the reforms.

Photo: Anna Watts

This distrust was reflected in weak media coverage of the protests; in spite of the thousand plus standing in solidarity at Los Encuentros, only one reporter from a local agency showed up with a small video camera.

Protesters line the road leading to and out of the Los Encuentros crossroad, along the Pan-American highway, guarding against any incoming traffic and transport. Photo: Anna Watts

  • February 23, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    muy excelente Viva El Frente


  • Pamela Halouvas
    February 23, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    This protest was more specifically against the government's plan to privatize electricity supply with a planned 130% increase in electricity. It was advertised on social media to 48 villages.


  • Jay Singh
    February 23, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    Let's hope they can work out a solution, but it seems unlikely. My understanding is that this sort of conflict has been occurring for centuries. The indigenous communities have always gotten the short end of the stick in that country.


  • kd
    February 25, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    I believe it was about two things according to one of the indigenous mayors quoted in La Prensa Libre: both the surge in electric rates which adversely affects the majority of the population AND the recognition of indigenous authorities


    • Anna watts
      March 1, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      Yes, I did speak to people who mentioned the electricity prices, particularly on the first day of protests. However, on the second and largest day of protests, almost every person I spoke to stated their reason for being there as the justice reforms and the vast majority of signs at the protest in Los Encuentros centered on this issue. I also found that those who had organized the protest, namely indigenous authorities, community leaders, and activists, had done so for the issue of the justice reforms. There are certainly are issues with electricity prices, however, the few newspapers I found that reported on the protests focused almost exclusively on electricity and failed to mention the justice reforms. I wanted to speak to what I observed and experienced as the key issue at the heart of the protests.

  • June Ribaldi
    February 26, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Its so sad because they really don't ask for much .
    I hope people learn great lessons of Love and compassion from the #StandingRock incident ..People just want to Live in Peace and with Mother Nature
    i wish more Americans would educate themselves about Our Nations history AMERICAN NATIVE Indigenous History


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