The objective of this Alert is to bring attention to and share our concerns regarding the current situation of threats and violence in Monte Olivo, Cobán (Alta Verapaz). This situation has developed within the context of the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Icbolay river (a tributary to the Chixoy river) near the junction of the rivers Dolores and Canguinic.
After a bidding process in 2008, the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) in 2010 granted the HIDROELÉCTRICA SANTA RITA S.A company the licence to undertake construction of the hydroelectric project. This was done without obtaining prior, free and informed consent from the Maya Q'eqchi communities that inhabit the area. Since then, 22 communities have used various means, including appealing to the authorities, to express their opposition to the project and demand respect for their rights.
After the communities carried out several acts of protest in February 2012, the company withdrew machinery that it had just days prior brought in to begin construction in the area. In April 2012, the strong community opposition also resulted in the removal of an military outpost that had been established in the area in March.
In 2013, the situation was characterized by aggressive and violent actions against the communities, demonstrating a serious deterioration in respect for and observance of human rights.
Several significant events that took in place in Monte Olivo during this period illustrate the cause for concern:
In January 2013, nearly one year after the community protest that lead to the removal of machinery from the area (February 2012), a complaint launched by the company against five community leaders was accepted as valid. As a result, arrest warrants were issued against the community leaders, who were accused of kidnapping, illegal detention and aggravated robbery. Two months later, in March 2013, machinery was once again brought to the hydroelectric project site.
In early August, a Monte Olivo community leader filed a complaint stating that he had been the target of an attempted kidnapping.
On 23 August, while the same community leader was in Cobán participating in a meeting with Dinah Shelton, the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights' (IACHR) Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, a violent incident took place in Monte Olivo. Two boys were shot and later died in hospital. According to residents of the community, the assailant had links to the hydroelectric project and was looking for the community leader. After the attack, during a time of deep shock and consternation, residents of nearby communities arrived in Monte Olivo. Meanwhile, the local residents detained the assailant and repeatedly requested that the National Civil Police (PNC) and other authorities come to the community to take him into custody. Their request was denied and the resulting outcome was that the assailant was killed, with neither his arrest nor his life having been guaranteed by the appropriate authorities.
On 8 November, in the neighbourhood of Xalahá, Monte Olivo, several people were injured during a violent eviction attempt undertaken by private security guards and landowner Leonel Ponce. The incident took place in an area that had been occupied by community members as a means of asserting their rights and in protest against the hydroelectric project. In addition to physical attacks, the burning and destruction of facilities and items belonging to the community was reported. Carlos Isaías Guitz, one of the most seriously injured individuals, suffered a gunshot wound.
On 8 December, four people were assaulted in Monte Olivo. They filed complaints with the Public Prosecutor's Office, attributing the assault to people in the community who they said are associated with the hydroelectric company.
Together with the deterioration in the human rights situation demonstrated by the incidents outlined above, PBI has also observed with great concern a general increase in tension and violence that is negatively affecting the residents and communities, and the community resistance efforts.
This is not an isolated case. It possesses characteristics in common with other local situations in which community members have questioned and rejected large economic investment projects. Along with the serious assaults, this case has characteristics similar to those in other regions of the country where PBI has carried out its accompaniment and international observation work. These characteristics include:
- an absence of consent given by the affected communities and populations following a prior, free and informed consultation process, and failure to observe other rights recognized in international covenants ratified by the State of Guatemala,
- the presence and violent actions of armed non-state actors,
- a lack of advances in investigations and a failure to administer justice in cases of attacks that have been reported by the communities and their residents,
- (in contrast to the above) criminal harassment and arrest warrants issued against community leaders and residents as an immediate response by the authorities to complaints filed by companies and other non-government actors and their representatives; these processes often taken place at times that are favourable to the interests of those filing the complaints,
- refusal or lack of effective response to demands presented by the communities specifically when the presence of the PNC or other public institutions are needed in order to carry out their duties and responsibilities,
- destruction of community processes and relationships as a result of the presence and actions of companies and other non-state actors; the creation of internal divisions.
Overcoming these factors would contribute greatly to the prevention or amelioration of similar situations of conflict.
Based on the information and concerns presented, PBI is seeking the attention of the international community and the implementation of actions that are within the international community's scope in order to provide human rights protections in Monte Olivo.
In particular, we are asking members of diplomatic missions and other international institutions to visit the community in order to gain a first-hand understanding of the situation and express their concerns over the threats and attacks that are seriously affecting the residents.
We also request that international community representatives in their discussions with the authorities and Guatemalan public institutions do the following:
- underscore the investigation and administration of justice responsibilities relating to the violent incidents that have taken place in Monte Olive, prioritizing the protection of children and addressing the urgent need to solve the murder of the two boys in August 2013.
- call for respect for and observance of the human rights of the communities and their members;
- express support for the validity of actions undertaken in the defense of human rights, as well as other closely related rights such as the right to organize and carry out demonstrations;
- encourage the authorities and public institutions to guarantee the satisfactory administration of justice,
- highlight the requirement for the authorities to be present in the communities when necessary in order to protect community members, guaranteeing their safety and the defense of their human rights.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Peace Brigades International Guatemala Project