Guatemalan Army Crushes Land Protest

Land-use clash on picturesque Lake Atitlan highlights the plight of indigenous majority

SECURITY forces have ignored the exhortations of Roman Catholic Church officials and other mediators in a local land dispute here and violently put down a two-week-old indigenous peasant occupation of disputed land. Mediators were still hoping to find a peaceful resolution when military riot police attacked on Saturday.

Military police moved in at dawn, hurling rocks and swinging truncheons, according to witnesses. The dozens of injured included many women and children. Sixty-seven others, all men, were arrested.

The military's swift and unexpected response to the peasant occupation has heightened tensions between the government of President Jorge Serrano Elias and Guatemala's majority indigenous population. Indigenous organizations here have become increasingly active in both land and human rights issues in the past several months.

During the occupation, thousands of indigenous peasants from nearby towns and villages marched to San Jorge in an unusual demonstration of support.

"This is the sentiment and pain of all the people," said one San Jorge resident.

"The situation in San Jorge is the situation in all of [Guatemala]," says Antonio Argueta, a labor attorney representing the community.

The villagers claim they have a "historic right" to more than 200 acres in a fertile valley on the shores of volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan. But entrepreneurs Luis and Carlos Saravia Camacho, who hold the current legal title to the property, plan to convert the valley into a luxury lakeside resort.

Ramon Varios Chiguil, one of their attorneys, said: "We don't want a confrontation. But the land is legally ours."

The conflict illustrates one of Guatemala's most deeply rooted problems: reconciling the rights of land owners and those of indigenous people of Mayan descent, who make up roughly 60 percent of Guatemala's population of about 9 million.

At issue is whether the indigenous population's historic claim to land supersedes titles written during the coffee boom of the late 1800s. Against a backdrop of increasing social unrest and two decades of declining living standards in the indiginous community, the government faces a difficult task in solving the dispute.

"We don't even have a place to build a latrine," says one of San Jorge's community leaders. "We are poor. We don't have enough land to farm."

The disputed land lies between the village and the shores of Lake Atitlan. Last month, attorneys for the Camacho brothers notified the community that because of an impending investment project they would be denied access to either use or pass through the land. Two weeks later, about 1,000 villagers - more than half of San Jorge's population - left their homes a half-mile up the mountain to build shacks and occupy the land in question.

On March 31, a smaller contingent of riot police destroyed the squatters' shacks but did not attempt to remove the population. The Catholic bishop for this region, Monsignor Eduardo Fuentes, along with officials from the quasi-independent government Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, then began to mediate between the two sides. During the talks, the villagers rebuilt their shacks.

The Camacho brothers bought the land from the Fuentes family in 1975. According to still existing documents, Domingo Fuentes inherited the land from his parents in the late 1800s.

Two weeks ago, representatives of the Camacho brothers came to the site to negotiate with the community. They offered to expand a school, improve electrical lines, and install sewers if the villagers agreed to end their occupation of the land, community representatives say.

But the villagers rejected the offer, maintaining that what they want is the land. Community leaders say their claim to the land dates back to the 16th century, and that they can demonstrate that their forefathers, before the arrival of Europeans, were the rightful owners of the land.

"The historical claim and the [current] legal claim are not the same," Mr. Argueta says. "The legal claim is divorced from [this community's] history. What we are attempting to do is to convert their historical claim into a real right."

The community enjoys the support of this region's elected deputy to Guatemala's National Congress, Julio David Diaz Chay, who met with villagers on Friday before the military crackdown. He said he would prepare a formal petition to the Serrano administration asking it to hear the villagers' case.

Mr. Diaz's constituency is among the poorest of Guatemala, which has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in Latin America. While 2 percent of Guatemalans own more than 70 percent of the nation's arable land, most Indians are chronically underemployed and landless.

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