GUATEMALA CITY – Her triple condition as a woman, Indian and defender of human rights has made Juana Sales, a spokesperson for the Tz’ununija Indigenous Women’s Movement, into one of the most influential voices of Guatemalan activism, which in recent years has become a very high risk pursuit.
“Any defender of human rights is immediately and automatically branded an enemy of the state,” Sales told EFE in an interview.
In 2015, 13 human-rights defenders were slain in this Central American country, six more than the year before. Since 2000 there have been 4,485 officially registered attacks on these activists, almost one a day.
“There are always situations of violence,” said the activist of the Tz’ununija Movement, whose shared leadership eases the pressure on its members: “In my case I’m not so visible, because it’s not just me – we’re a collective.”
Nonetheless, Sales has had her share of direct threats, some even by the authorities: “If you don’t stop annoying them, you know what can happen.”
“Other colleagues have also been threatened,” said Sales, who has been more than five years fighting for the empowerment of Guatemala’s Indian women.
A work she shares with the likes of Lolita Chavez, one of the most active Quiche voices in defense of ancestral lands and water, and whose work Juana Sales often mentions.
It is precisely Guatemala’s forestry, mineral, hydroelectric and oil riches that make the Central American country such a temptation for big multinational corporations, eager to find cheap labor and government permissiveness.
“Peasants in Guatemala have no access to the land... Guatemala is the country, together with Haiti and Brazil, where riches of the land are in the hands of the few,” said the director of the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC), Daniel Pascual, who recently took part along with Sales in a human rights forum organized by Oxfam.
The eviction of peasants and indigenous communities from their lands frequently leads to clashes with government forces: “There are governments that maintain an alliance with the landowning class, which leads to permanent confrontations,” Pascual said.
All too often these conflicts leave fatalities: three in Raxruha in August 2014, eight in Totonicapan two years before.
“We run these risks every day,” Juana Sales said, while denouncing governmental “abuse of power”: “The state has the responsibility to guarantee life, liberty and justice. But that’s just not the case.”
Over the past 15 years, Guatemala has had four administrations – Alfonso Portillo, 2000-2004; Oscar Berger, 2004-2008; Alvaro Colom, 2008-2012, and Otto Perez Molina, 2012-2015 – without any “decisive changes” in the human rights panorama, says a report by the Protection Unit for Human Rights Defenders, or Udefegua, published last May.
Arbitrary arrests, forced evictions, slayings, imprisonment... a “constant repression” that has only intensified the “permanent poverty and misery” of Indian communities, Pascual said.
“The government does not respond with policies or institutions, but it does respond with repression when indigenous and peasant populations reclaim their right to the land,” the CUC director said.
As for the administration of Jimmy Morales, sworn-in as president early this year? That remains to be seen, Pascual suggests.
The only thing that is clear, Pascual said, is that as long as Guatemala continues to have problems of access to land, huge hydroelectric and mining projects, evictions, murders and social conflicts, there will be no peace.